Who will dare challenge the election results blackout?

Janice Neil

In an election campaign with Twittering, Blogging, and Facebook mainstreeting this instant information world is suddenly going dark tonight. Elections Canada and the Supreme Court of Canada seem to think most Canadians are content with learning about poll results the way we did in an era of cathode ray tubes and the wireless (radio).

While the mainstream media vow to obey the gag law that prevents them from broadcasting or publishing online to the whole country while some voters are still heading to the polls,  it seems unimaginable that citizen bloggers or anyone with access to the internet will so easily cave to an 80-year-old law.

But on popular blogging sites and other online forums that have regularly opined during the election campaign, there’s no-one bragging about publishing results from the east before the polls close in B.C. at 10 pm EST and risking fines up to $25,000.

Perhaps the social networkers are keeping to themselves after seeing the Supreme Court slap down B.C. software developer Paul Bryan 18 months ago for posting vote results from Atlantic Canada on his website  during the 2000 election. A majority of 5-4 judges ruled the section of the Canada Elections Act that bans the publication of voting results until all federal polls close on election night does not violate the Charter of Rights. It agreed with the intent, that  electoral democracy could be undermined if some voters heard about returns from the east.  

The four dissenting judges agreed that technology renders the blackout obsolete, and sympathized with the media organizations that blocking the flow of information is almost impossible.  

But the speed of SCOC judgments hardly keeps pace with technology. While  news editors are now accustomed to waiting until 10 pm EST before spilling the poll results online, they wrestle  each election with how to control the new methods they’ve introduced to inform their online readers. 

For instance, CTV’s Robert Hurst described having to black out a service that allows subscribers to call, enter a postal code and get a result in that riding. “Last week we couldn’t ensure compliance due to roaming cell phones, so we have blacked that out as well until 10 pm,” he said in an email interview Tuesday morning.

Already, he and other national broadcasters have had to order regional distributors to unplug their towers and block out the satellite and cable signals that allow digital TV viewers in Vancouver, for instance, to watch the local news program in Halifax.

That was exactly what led to Paul Bryan’s $1000 fine after the 2000 election. From the moment the polls closed in Newfoundland and Labrador, he began providing results and updated them every few minutes for the next three hours. A Carleton University study that night found his page contained no stories, no analysis, and no declaration of likely winners — just riding-by-riding results. He got his results by watching CBC Television’s feed to Atlantic Canada using a satellite dish, and typed them onto his Web page, which was hosted on a server in San Antonio, Tex. — a deliberate move to ensure the results were technically published outside the country.

Bryan managed to keep up until 9:30 p.m. EST when the polls closed for 82 per cent of the country’s voters, everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. Shortly after 10 p.m., when all the media Web sites could finally publish results, he put up a page that read “Mission Accomplished” — he says he received more than 500,000 page views that night — and directed people to media sites for further results. Days later, the police arrived and seized two of his hard drives and his Visa card statements because they included charges for the server he used in Texas.

Bryan has since moved on but his followers may well hit the internet with poll results tonight. Perhaps they’ll be emboldened by the passion of a younger Stephen Harper.  Before he was Prime Minister, he called  Election Canada officials “jackasses” and the Chief Electoral Officer a “dangerous man” for supporting the election night ban.

Sounds like a call to go a-Twittering, to me, tonight.

Janice Neil is Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism at Ryerson University and Ideas Editor of J-Source.

A post about the act and citizen journalism can be found here on J-Source.

Read “Election night coverage in Canada: Newspaper Web sites hindered by the Canada Elections Act” a study by Mary McGuire and Janice Neil presented to the Annual Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, Newspaper Division in Miami, Florida in 2002.