Should Sec. 329 of the Canada Elections Act be repealed or amended?

Tweeting or posting a comment about the election results on your Twitter or Facebook wall on election night in Canada could make you $25,000 poorer according to John Enright, spokesman for Elections Canada.

The agency was forced to alert tweet-happy Canadians to a 1938 law which banned the “premature transmission” of election results across time zones as a result of the exponential growth and influence of social media in this year’s federal election.  The law in question is Section 329 of the Elections Act which reads:

“ 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.”

The law made sense in a bygone era when our communications and news outlets were few in numbers. Lawmakers at the time were fearful that fraudulent poll results might be released for political gains on the few communication and news mediums that were available back then, and that there would not be enough time to correct the misinformation.  They were also concerned that the unequal dissemination of information could unduly influence voters who have not yet had a chance to vote, and in turn could serve to discourage and suppress voter turnout. There is some evidence from an academic study conducted in the early 80’s which showed that upon “hearing news of the projected outcome [of an election] decreased the likelihood of voting among those who had not already voted.” [1]

But in 2011, in an age where more than half of the country is now either on Facebook or Twitter, some of the original reasons for enacting Section 329 have dissipated into the fog of history.  According to a recent study, more than two thirds of Canadians who use social networking sites value them as a way of keeping up with the news [2].  We believe that this trend will continue unabated.  We now have a myriad of communication tools and media outlets at our disposal, and information is ubiquitous and moves at the speed of light. The argument about unequal dissemination and access to information does not hold as much water anymore.   As for the fear regarding misinformation and fraudulent results being reported, that too is a misnomer.  Yes, there will always be mischief makers among us who will revel in creating chaos and dishing out untruth.  But one of the beauties of social media is that we now have easy access to the “wisdom-of-the-crowd”, where every citizen with a smartphone is now a citizen-journalist, and that the mechanism for self-correction is part of the DNA of every social media sites.  For example, late last year when legendary NHL coach Pat Burns was erroneously and prematurely reported dead on twitter, it only took one hour for that story to unravel on the very same medium that was used to spread the original incorrect story.

Section 329 is an antiquated law made for a time that is long gone. At best, Elections Canada can only selectively enforce this law, which from a public policy stand point makes the law unfair, unenforceable, and ultimately illegitimate in the eyes of the very people that it is purported to protect. Parliament should consider updating the Election Act to reflect this new reality.  One option is to repeal that section of the law outright or at the very least, amend it, directing Elections Canada not to release any election results until the last poll in B.C. has closed.

Let us know what you think about Section 329.   Should it be repealed, amended or left as is?

[1] Jackson, J. (1983). Election night reporting and voter turnout. American Journal of Political Science, 27 (4), 615-635.

[2] Canadian Media Research Consortium. (2011, April). Social networks transforming how Canadians get the news. Retrieved from http://www.visioncritical.com/newsroom/social-networks-transforming-how-canadians-get-the-news/

*This blog post is my opinion only, based on my own research, experiences and observations into the subject matter, and not a substitute for legal advice.

1 COMMENT

Comments are closed.