A proposal to fix an outdated provision in election law

By Harold Jansen on Oct 6, 2008

With just a week or so to go to the election, we're about to run into a part of Canada's election law that always irks me. Section 329 of the Elections Act prohibits the publication on election results while the polls are still open locally. As someone who grew up in Alberta, I understand the reason for this. We're better served by not knowing what is happening out east. In 1980, I remember turning on the TV at 8:00 PM (poll closing time back then) and being informed that there would be a Liberal majority government. At that point, they had not counted a single vote from Alberta yet. It's a nice reminderof why your vote doesn't matter. It's hard enough to get people out to vote now; more disincentives are not useful.

A challenge to the law on Charter grounds was almost successful, but the Supreme Court upheld s. 329 by a narrow 5-4 margin. Besides the constitutional argument, Paul Bryan argued that the Internet had largely rendered the publication ban unenforceable. And he's right. It would not be difficult for me to get the results in Atlantic Canada off the Internet or by e-mail before the polls close here in Alberta. Elections Canada tried to fix this by changing the voting hours, so that polls in most of the country close at the same time. That, of course, has introduced a patchwork of voting hours across Canada. But it hasn't eliminated the problem. Canada is a big country, so some staggered hours are necessary. Right now, the polls close in Newfoundland three hours before they do in British Columbia.

Is there a better way? How about this: let's standardize the voting hours from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM across Canada. But here's the thing: No one would start to count the ballots until 7:00 PM Pacific time. That means that people in Newfoundland would be sitting around looking at full sealed ballot boxes for four and a half hours. But it means that all of the national results would start coming in at the same time. No bans would be necessary because no one in Canada would have access to any information before anyone else.

I suspect the broadcast networks wouldn't like it because they wouldn't get to broadcast election results to their high-population Eastern time zone until 10:00 at night. It would also mean that Elections Canada would have to pay their poll workers a bit more for election night, since their workers' hours in Atlantic Canada would be extended pretty significantly. But it would solve a problem of a ban that technology is rendering obsolete anyway, it would standardize the polling station hours across the country, and it would level the information playing field on election day.

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