Excitement peaks on election day in Canada

My, my, my! So much for the usual election riffs of “politicians are all the same” and “why should I vote, nothing will change”. Nope, this time around things have become so exciting that conventional wisdom has to stand back and watch. (Even as some say this new level of engagement also needs a higher level of voter education.)

Canadians are waiting with baited breath to learn the outcome of an election that turned out to be pretty meaningful after all.  Amazingly – depending on the results – Monday’s vote may not be the end of anything. If another minority government is the end result all sorts of different scenarios are possible.

To re-cap: Canada’s three non-ruling political parties found Stephen Harper’s minority Conservative Party in contempt of Parliament on March 25th by a vote of 156 to 145, prompting this current election.

Harper called it an unnecessary election, more about crass positioning for political advantage than a real comment on the state of democracy in this country. At the same time, Harper was clearly hoping an annoyed electorate would decide that 5 years of probation was long enough and he could finally be trusted with a majority. (If only to slow the frequent elections generated by minority government!)

NDP gains at the expense of Liberals

The usual challenger to the conservatives was/would be the Liberals, currently lead by Michael Ignatieff. The usual spoiler was Quebec’s Bloc Québécois under Gilles Duceppe. The usual also-rans were the NDP, under Jack Layton, with a small number of seats in parliament. And the Green Party, lead by Elizabeth May, with no seats in parliament at present.

Well, almost out of the blue, a couple of things happened. In a truly dispiriting back and forth of negative ads from Conservatives and Liberals, Jack Layton’s campaign stayed positive. Layton hasn’t changed his message all that much, but this time around voters just seem fed-up with the arrogance and pure nastiness displayed by the Conservatives and Liberals.

Layton’s team is said to have studied some lessons of the Obama campaign: an emphasis on hope and looking forward, an increased use of social media, along with attempts to engage younger voters and woo non-voters.

Meanwhile, after 20 years of voting Bloc, Quebec voters have seemingly decided that experiment may be in need of retirement. Polls are just polls. But most polls say the NDP is going to sweep Quebec, notwithstanding some rather inexperienced candidates on the ballot.

Even if this becomes the only major change in the election, it would mark a seismic shift. The fact that Layton was born and raised in Quebec and speaks vernacular French is a plus. But the NDP’s social policies are also attractive to many Quebec voters, who now seem willing to try a federalist party over a separatist party, for a change.

What other big changes could be coming? Well, once again, if polls mean anything, the Liberals are heading for a giant serving of humble pie. The NDP could win enough seats to become the official opposition, another ‘you must be kidding!’ outcome.

Political observers can barely contain their excitement in an election that seems to have developed a life of its own, upsetting convention at will. Speaking to the Hill Times, Forum Research president Lorne Bozinoff said “Voting realignment like this comes only once in a generation”.

The Harper referendum

Harper’s base is more than secure, it’s electrified. For Harper conservatives, nothing could be more important than making sure Canada is saved from the apocalyptic alternatives: (in their view) a weak and erratic Liberal party or the incredibly dangerous and irresponsible ‘socialists’ (Layton’s NDP).

Mind you, if enough voters agree, Harper could still potentially end up with a majority, though the polls make that seem a long shot at this point.

The anti-Harper faction is also energized. For those who feel Harper has behaved with indifference (or hostility) to democracy, nothing could be more important than keeping a majority out of this guy’s tyrannical reach.

Usually, the Liberals claim they are the only national party with a reasonable shot at replacing Harper, or keeping him in check. But not this time. They are polling a distant 3rd, virtually everywhere.

Will a late ‘smear’ help or hurt Layton?

Right up until all eyes turned to Friday’s royal wedding, Layton’s late surge seemed unchecked.  Jack wins what Warren Kinsella calles the HOAG factor: he’s a hell of a guy, the one you’d most want to hang with and share a beer.  But Friday afternoon something popped up – a scandal, or a smear, depending on one’s viewpoint. According to an article in the Toronto Sun, based on information from a retired Toronto policeman, in 1996 officers investigating a “bawdy house” encountered Layton there, getting a massage.

Layton protested the timing of the story’s release and objected to the innuendo of the article. Layton, his wife, fellow NDP politician Olivia Chow, and his lawyer stated the event was no secret, Layton did not know the establishment was considered suspicious and no wrongdoing took place. The Toronto Police Department has reportedly requested an Ontario Provincial Police investigation into a possible criminal breach of trust in the release of usually-confidential police notebook material.

The timing and content of this news left some suggesting this type of surprise represents an ugly, “American-style” campaign trick. Layton could get a sympathy bump off the whole situation, which may off-set or exceed any voters turned off by the information.

Elizabeth May tries again

Well, again, one can read too much into polls. It’s only votes that count. But after a string of failed elective attempts, Green Party Leader Elizabeth May appears to be in a close race in the British Columbia riding of Saanich-Gulf islands. While one (or a few Greens) in Parliament won’t have much effect on overall voting there, getting elected would be the breakthrough that party wants and needs to gain a greater presence on the national scene. If that happens, that too will be a game-changer, of sorts.

The Rick Mercer effect

My favorite Canadian political satirist, Rick Mercer, has been a player and an observer in this election. He’s tagged along on separate leader’s tours while reporting for Maclean’s Magazine,  as discussed in this interview with NPR’s Scot Simon.

On his popular TV show, The Rick Mercer Report, Mercer also used one of his regular ‘rants’ to spark a youth movement. It caught on well enough to prompt a number of ‘vote mob’ events on various campuses across Canada.

There are an estimated 3 million potential young voters in Canada, many of whom only use cell phones, which are not generally tracked in polling data. Will the youth vote show up?  What effect might that have? Curious minds want to know.

And thanks, Rick. For passionately advocating that citizens must take democracy seriously and cherish their right to a free vote.

Election blackout verses social media

Elections Canada finds itself in the middle of a muddle as to the enforcement of a law that dates from 1938.

Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act says: “No person shall transmit the result or purported result of the vote in an electoral district to the public in another electoral district before the close of all of the polling stations in that other electoral district.”

Initial reports on this subject suggested Elections Canada had decided to enforce the law, sort of. As Kathryn Marshall wrote in the Ottawa Citizen on April 24

The fine for breaking this can be up to $25,000 -and Elections Canada has a history of prosecuting people under this section. After the 2000 election it raided the home of a man who had posted the early results on his website, fined him and seized his computer.

So posting results on a website is taboo, but Elections Canada says it is OK to share them by email, phone call or even a Facebook message. Still sounds like transmitting to me. But it is forbidden to post the results to your Facebook profile or on your Twitter feed.

Criticism has been swift, as in this article by Paula Simons of Postmedia News:
We can only hope that this election will finally prove to the courts that such a news blackout is not only a condescending relic of the 1930s that treats voters like sheep, but also an unenforceable law that criminalizes routine social media conversation and denies Canadians the right to the kind of in-depth, interactive, online news reporting they have come to expect, and undoubtedly deserve.

Advocates of press and Internet freedom were unimpressed and some are calling for a tweet-in protest.

To be fair, Elections Canada is caught between a rock (current law, which only parliament can change) and a hard place (a public now addicted to instant information).

By April 25th it sounded like the agency wanted to avoid the role of Gestapo enforcer, according to a CTV Edmonton report:

…the agency will not be monitoring social media, instead it says it will rely on the honour system, and if complaints are filed, the agency will then investigate.

What do you think? Is there any justification for attempting to embargo election results?

I grew up in Hawaii, which in November is 5 hours behind EST. Many an election was arguably affected by news announcements that the Presidential race was basically decided. Some argue hearing the most important race is considered over ends up suppressing voter turn out. That, in turn, affects other races. I confess I consider it courteous to wait until everyone’s done voting before trying to call the outcomes.

Or should courtesy be damned? Is this strictly a question of freedom of information – with a hopeless enforcement outlook to boot?

I believe CBC radio’s The Current will address this topic Monday morning after the 0830 newscast.

(update on Mon 5/2: that segment can be found here.)

Final lessons?

A major development of this election may be that Canadians are tired of the status quo, particularly of negative ads and being taken for granted. Who knows if that annoyance will actually change the way campaigns are conducted or how this one turns out?

Canadians, though, are certainly living in interesting times, in this unexpectedly suspenseful election of Spring 2011.

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1 Comment on “Excitement peaks on election day in Canada”

  1. Blog On Smog says:

    You know the old saying: “If you can’t beat ‘em then join ‘em.” Perhaps instead of trying to shut down social media, why not use it to make voting easier. Allowing people to vote using social media (texting, twitter, …) would allow the voting hours to be cut back and not having the election decided before B.C. gets to vote.

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