Should Elections BC give parties data on voter turnout?

I spoke today on BC Almanac about an interesting story reported by the CBC. You can hear the podcast here.

The BC Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham objects to a proposed change to the BC Election Act that would provide political parties information about whether people have voted. Her concern is that this information would allow parties to target voters for fundraising and profiling. In political campaigns this is called “micro-targeting.”

In a world of big data, political parties can combine demographic and consumer information with their own internal databases on voters to make powerful inferences about who is likely to vote for their candidates. With this new information they will have an additional tool that will help them to understand turnout among supporters and opponents.

According to BC’s Chief Electoral Officer, political parties want this information: “When consulted on
 this issue, all political
 party representatives
 on the Election Advisory Committee requested that the Election Act also be amended to require the Chief Electoral Officer to provide individual voter participation information 
to political parties after
 an election.” Elections BC does not take a position on the issue, but obviously the government favours it.

Denham does not disagree with sharing information on voters that would help parties to get out the vote. Right now, campaigners are given bingo cards that allow them to track who has voted and who has not, both during advance polling and on election day. Her fear is that the release of individual-level information on turnout after the election could be used “for creating voter profiles, targeting voters, fundraising, sharing data across systems for secondary purposes, collecting non-consensual information, inappropriate communication from parties, and other intrusive uses.”

I was asked to speak to the issue of voter turnout. I think a number of issues need to be disentangled.

First, there is evidence that campaigning does increase turnout. A huge part of election campaigning in Canada is identification of voters and getting out the vote on election day. The more information parties have, the easier it is for them to target their efforts where it will be most effective.

Second, the availability of advanced analytics enables campaigners to be extremely focused in their messages. They can concentrate not just on key ridings but on key demographic groups and even individuals. Whereas in the past we spoke of swing ridings and swing voters in the plural, now the focus is on the swing voter as an individual.

Third, the growing importance of social media means that messages can be targeted at specific individuals or groups, by-passing the filter of the mass media. This raises troubling issues about fact-checking and the use of deceptive communications that fly below the radar.

It is not hard to see how they trends can also have a dark side. If campaigns can increase turnout, they can also be used to suppress turnout. A good example of that is the targeting of Jewish Liberal voters in the last election by vexatious phone calls late on Saturday nights intended to anger them against the Liberal Party. The callers claimed to be from the Liberal Party. Such calls required access to a database that could target the right individuals.

Similarly, the use of deceptive robocalls was a wake-up call to Canadians about the need for more vigorous monitoring and oversight of the behavior of candidates during elections.

By their own admission, parties are having a hard time recruiting the volunteers necessary to keep track of who has voted. This speaks to the way in which parties have become PR machines for candidates, rather than organizations with deep roots in civil society. The discussion of the use of data should be place in this larger context. Increasingly, voters do not trust politicians and parties .

I defer to the Privacy Commissioner on the best way to regulate the use of information in election campaigns. It seems inevitable that our politics is going to be transformed by the mining of data. Perhaps what we need is some sort of enforceable commitment on the part of the parties to uphold standards of good conduct during elections. If they are to be given access to this sort of information, a commitment to honesty and fair play seems like a reasonable quid pro quo.

No single Americas project exists

The following commentary was written in response to a request from the Canadian International Council to discuss to an article by Jean Daudelin on the Summit of the Americas in Panama. See the debate here.

The nations of Latin America are bound together by histories of colonialism and the struggle for independence; consolidation of oligarchies after a period of anarchy in the 19th century; populist mobilizations for political change in the early 20th century; a wave of revolutionary struggles and intense repression following the Cuban revolution in 1959; simultaneous transitions to democracy and market-led development in the 1980s, and, most recently, shifts to the left in some countries and more tepid reforms in others.

“Left turns” reflect disappointment with the record of market reforms, as well as the inability of liberal, representative democracy to promote inclusion and participation in the context of weak public institutions and uneven citizenship. Foreign intervention —protectorates, invasions, or foreign-backed coups — has been another constant in the region’s history.

Today, however, the region enjoys unprecedented independence from the influence of external forces — it is neither in debt to foreign creditors, nor a battleground for superpowers. It is free to pursue experimentation with both political institutions and models of development.  Rather than a single project, we are witnessing a proliferation of diverse patterns of innovation and change.  Among the most interesting models are Brazil and Bolivia, which have broken new ground in developing participatory budgeting, policy conferences, indigenous autonomies, and other new institutions of direct, participatory democracy. They are also pursuing pragmatic developmental and social policies aimed at overcoming legacies of exclusion, poverty, and inequality. While the rest of the world is becoming more unequal, Latin America is becoming more egalitarian.

The biggest challenge the region faces lies in the weakness and politicization of state institutions, which prevents legal institutions from guaranteeing and enforcing fundamental rights and freedoms. The horrific violations of human rights in Central America and Mexico are occurring under electoral democracies of extremely poor quality. The poorest quality of democracy can be found precisely in the countries where colonial legacies are greatest, where large indigenous communities have been excluded from citizenship rights, where extractive industries are most critical to economic development, and where the pattern of political change has emphasized repressive oligarchies, radical populism, and repressive authoritarian regimes. The highest quality of democracy is found in Costa Rica and Uruguay — countries that were marginal to the colonial enterprise, where labour-repressive plantations and mining enclaves were less important, and where the pattern of political development involved the early development of constitutionalism, milder versions of populism, and less repression.

There are emerging projects in Latin America, but we North Americans typically fail to see them because of the ideological blinkers we wear, which cause us to focus narrowly on the protection of liberal democratic regimes and the rights of property and free enterprise rather than to focus on the deeper problems of poverty, inequality, exclusion, and repression that have led to patterns of development in which state capacity to respond to collective needs is diminished.  We persist in thinking that the solution is markets, liberal democracy, and cooperation in such absurdities as the “war on drugs” or the “national security threat” from Venezuela.

Too bad for us. It means we are excluding ourselves from the emerging projects of the Americas.

Does the Duffy Scandal Expose the Need for More Rules?

Much of the reporting on the Mike Duffy trial has emphasized the laxness of the rules of Senate with regard to what counts as residency or what expenses can be claimed. For example, Christy Blatchford writes: “When the man with no shame met the place with no rules, so perfect was the marriage, so instant the attraction, the fireworks must have been spectacular.” She goes on to describe a letter to Duffy from Christopher McCreery, policy advisor to Senator Marjory LeBreton, which indicated that the Senate is an “honourable” chamber in which nobody would question the word of a senator who says he or she can represent a Province where they own property, even if they live in Ottawa 99 percent of the time; nor would anyone question whether expense claims are valid if a senator claims Ottawa as a secondary residence even if he or she lived there for decades, as was the case with Duffy.

What kind of rules was Duffy breaking? You could argue that there were no rules, and therefore he was breaking none. This appears to be Duffy’s defense. Curiously, commentators may accept this defense, arguing for the need for tighter rules. But this lets Duffy off the hook — as well as the guy who appointed him.  Yet another interpretation is possible. We can start by making a distinction between regulatory rules and constitutive rules. Regulatory rules, like most laws, enjoin or prohibit actions on penalty of sanctions; they govern an activity or practice. Constitutive rules create a practice: they are the rules of the game that give an institution its identity and determine its function. What counts as representing a Province is a constitutive rule. What expenses can be claimed once it is determined where a senator lives is a regulatory rule.

The problem exposed by the Duffy scandal is less a problem of regulatory rules: Duffy was not appointed to represent the interests of PEI, he was appointed to be a partisan fundraiser and campaigner. That his appointment bent the rules of residency and that he claimed expenses that were fraudulent is a symptom of a deeper problem—namely, that his appointment was made in the interest of partisan machinations, not in order to enhance the representation of a Province in the legislative process. In a way, it was an arrogation of power by Ottawa, at the expense of PEI, and at the expense of the proper functioning of the political system.