By Nestor Arellano
In a rare exhibition of election fervor Canadians vented their views about the polls and a few even braved the risk of being fined by Elections Canada by “illegally” tweeted early results of yesterday’s Federal Election.
The act of online civil disobedience squarely went against the archaic but still in effect Elections Act, Section 329 which states: No person shall transmit the result or purported result of the vote in an electoral district to the public in another district before the close of all the posting station in that other district.
Penalties for violating the act, which was introduced back in the 1930s to prevent election results from Atlantic Canada from being broadcasted to the rest of the country, could include a fine of up to $25,000 and five years in prison.
Back in 2000, Peter C. Bryan of Vancouver was fined $1,000 for flouting the 70-year-old law and posting on his blog the election results from Atlantic Canada which he accessed from a satellite feed from Newfoundland.
While, Bryan was reluctant to do the same this time around, many of his compatriots and not a few from abroad posted their opposition to EA Section 329 under the hashtag #tweetheresult. #tweettheresults generated so much buzz that it quickly became the most tweeted topic worldwide eclipsing even tweets about Osama bin Laden.
The law, they said, made sense in an era when there were only a dozen radio stations in the country and we were generations away from the 24-hours news cycle, the Internet, Facebook updates, microblogging and Twitter.
Although from 7 p.m to 10 p.m, the site removed its aggregation feature: “To avoid a potential fine or protracted legal battle, we have taken this site offline for 3 hours,” there were many tweets like the one posted by Schmeedle that dared to include riding numbers
Schmeedle Deena Roth owed
A lot of users also began posting election results that were being shown on TV by local networks: “St. Johns TV station reporting: Lib 5, NDP 3, Con 1, BQ 0, GP 0 #tweettheresults #elxn41”
One person in Australia said he received election results sent to him via email: some 45 minutes before the social media blackout expired: “Results via email – I can’t verify here in Oz: LIB 4 Con 2 in NL #tweettheresults
I think punitive measures such as the one threatened by Elections Canada against people posting preliminary poll results on sites such as Facebook and Twitter, are not the answer.
At a time when we have been facing voter turnout of less than 50 per cent, activities that enable citizens to voice out their thoughts about politics and generate interest about the country’s political future should be encouraged.
EA Section 329 was created so that voters across the country went to the polls with basically the same information and would not be influenced by news coming from other parts of Canada. Proponents of Sect 329 believe that tweets from one end of Canada have the power to sway voters in the other end of the country. Yes that will likely happen in some cases but I think in general people in different provinces vote on different issues. I also can’t imagine people waiting outside polling stations checking on their smartphones and tablets checking to see how people on the other side of the country voted before they cast their own ballots.
The law was mainly aimed a broadcasters and large news media, not individuals using social media tools to communicate with their friends. Its framers had not foreseen advent of the Internet and the spontaneous viral connections afforded by social media. Elections Canada was able to single out Bryan back in 2000 but would the election body be able to enforce the law today if it decided to?
Would the law cover an individual informing his 40 friends on Facebook about election results in his part of the country? Would an American retweeting poll results from Newfoundland be fined for doing so?
How do you police the twitterverse? If they wanted, people can tweet, text, post on Facebook or even make a video on YouTube of the elections proceedings in their area.
Elections Canada, actually seems to have little appetite for s doing just that. In interviews with various news outlets its representatives have made it clear that Elections Canada is not monitoring the social media space. Elections Canada is simply not set up for such a task. Instead, reaction to violation of Section 329, they said, will be a “complaint driven process.” – there won’t be any investigation unless there is a complaint.
Perhaps this difficulty in enforcing the Section 329 will eventually lead to the law being replaced with something that is more in tune with our current reality.