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Electoral Insight - Technology in the electoral process

Electoral Insight – June 2000

The Impact of the Internet on Canadian Elections

The Impact of the Internet on Canadian Elections

Tom McMahon
Acting Director, Legal Services, Elections Canada

It is impossible today to read a newspaper or listen to the news or even a Throne Speech without hearing about the importance of the Internet. We hear about it in all fields of endeavour, so it is only natural that we would ask: What will be the impact of the Internet on elections?

The respondents

To help us answer this question, in early 2000, Elections Canada sent letters to all the registered federal political parties, all chief electoral officers across Canada and a variety of "third parties" (groups likely to be interested in advertising during elections, but who will not be fielding candidates) and academics. While the response to our query was not overwhelming in numbers, it was in quality, and it presents an informative view of the issues we are likely to face concerning the Internet and elections. We sent out four questions and advised all potential respondents that we would not attribute specific comments to them, but would identify in a list those who had answered our questions. We also asked for comments about Bill C-2, the proposed new Canada Elections Act, as it may relate to the Internet.

We received responses from British Columbia Chief Electoral Officer Robert Patterson; Newfoundland and Labrador Chief Electoral Officer Robert Jenkins; representatives of the Directeur général des élections du Québec; Green Party representative Julian West; Canadian Labour Congress Secretary-Treasurer Nancy Riche; Environment Voters Director Stephen Best; Democracy Watch Board Member Aaron Freeman; President of Electronic Frontier Canada, Professor David Jones of McMaster University; and technology law columnist with The Globe and Mail, University of Ottawa Professor Michael Geist. It must be emphasized that the comments we received were not intended to represent official positions of any of the above organizations.


To what extent, if any, do you believe that electoral advertising on the Internet might have a significant impact on electors in the next general election (e.g. voter information, influencing voter intentions, campaign fundraising)?

This question concerned "advertising" on the Internet, such as the purchase of "banner ads" that appear on commercial sites that are not controlled by the person or organization that placed the ad. (Question 2 is aimed at the Web sites of different interested parties.)

The respondents stressed that the Internet is very different in nature from radio and television. The Internet is essentially a "pull" technology the user must go to the site, and to the ads on the site and "pull" the information to themselves. Radio and television are "push" technologies: listeners and viewers have advertisements pushed at them without having to do anything more than select the channel. They cannot choose whether to activate the commercial, as they can at a Web site; they can only choose to change the channel. As one respondent stated: "the Web does not have commercial breaks." Another wrote: "Internet sites might be seen as electronic versions of lawn signs you have to go there just to know they exist, and then take the time to read what they say."

In addition, significant numbers of Canadians do not have access to the Internet; those who do have access use the Internet fairly infrequently. For them, the Net has generally not replaced the traditional media. Finally, the Internet has an almost infinite number of Web sites, the vast majority of which are non-Canadian. This means that it is extraordinarily difficult for Canadian election advertising on the Internet to reach significant numbers of Canadians never mind getting Canadians to click on those ads! Thus, there was general consensus among respondents that Canadian election advertising on the Internet would not have a significant impact on electors in the near future. However, one respondent noted that young people are more familiar with the Internet and it can be expected that election information on the Net will have a greater impact on them than on other groups in society.


To what extent, if any, do you believe that the Web sites of various parties (e.g. registered political parties, candidates, "third" parties that is, those who engage in electoral advertising during an election but who do not field candidates) might have a significant impact on electors in the next general election?

Here, the respondents generally felt that such Web sites will be most effective in encouraging persons already committed to their owners' messages. Thus, the interested party's Web site (and e-mail lists) can be an excellent way to encourage persons already sympathetic to the message to contribute money and to volunteer time, and to send out information to assist those persons in explaining and defending the party's position. It was also noted that the quality of Web sites can vary considerably.

One respondent summed up the situation this way: "The vast majority of voters and, in particular, the all-important undecided voters have little interest in seeking out campaign material or information. For the most part, people are uninterested in politics and elections."

One respondent wrote: "In the most recent federal election, the party Web sites were generally considered mediocre, and didn't necessarily contain information that wasn't already available elsewhere. ...Web sites have tremendous potential; however, I predict that the major parties will choose not to direct substantial time, funding, or staff to the development of truly effective Web sites. I would be delighted to be proven wrong."

Another respondent commented on candidates who have Web sites separate from their party Web sites. "I think it sends a mixed message why isn't this person simply on the party Web site? Now that everyone is expected to have a professional Web presence, I think there'll now be consolidation onto fancy party sites, rather than having individual candidates make their own."



Source: Angus Reid Group, Inc.
Canadians are second only to the Americans as the most active users of the Internet in the world, according to a survey done by the Toronto-based Angus Reid Group. It found that during a one-month period, 56 percent of Canadian adults or 12.5 million persons surfed the Web. This compared to 59 percent of American adults. The study also found that global Internet usage could reach 1 billion users by 2005, with more than 300 million people already logged on. There were an estimated 40 million Internet users worldwide in 1996.


What, if anything, can the Internet do for an electoral campaign that cannot be done equally effectively by other forms of media?

While the Internet may not be especially effective as a replacement for advertising in traditional media or for reaching undecided voters, there are some things that the Internet can do that traditional media cannot. As one respondent wrote: "The Internet will also play a key role in mobilizing campaign workers. The ability to generate buzz about a particular issue and quickly spread the word will be important for the coming election. All one needs to look to is the power of the Net in last fall's WTO [World Trade Organization] meetings in Seattle to see first-hand the mobilizing power among various groups of the electronic environment. ...[The Internet can] mobilize people quickly on a national basis much faster media is still predominantly local, while the Web is national in scope."

Of course, as the above quote points out, the Internet is an information medium. The Internet by itself is not what is important it is the ability to give information to people who can then take concrete action in the non-virtual world that makes the Internet important.

Other qualities that differentiate the Internet from traditional media are its unlimited capacity for providing information, and the ability to provide that information without filtering by journalists or commentators. If a voter wants to know what a political party's platform is, he or she can quickly find it, as the political party wrote it, on the Internet. Further, the Internet combines Web pages, Web site forms and e-mail (including automated e-mail distribution lists sending out information to large numbers of people with one click of a button) at extremely low cost compared to other forms of advertising. In combination with the above, the Internet offers far greater speed than other forms of media. Thus, if a political party or a third party wants to rebut something said by another political party or third party, it can send out messages to large numbers of people, including journalists, almost immediately. The work of political party "rapid response" teams, which ensure that no attack goes unanswered, is much easier when they use Internet technology.

One issue not raised by the respondents is that of targeting voters. This issue was explained by Stephen Best of Environment Voters when he appeared before the House of Commons Committee that studied Bill C-2 on November 23, 1999. The text can be found at Stephen Best explained the way Environment Voters participates in campaigns.

While Stephen Best did not mention the Internet, it is clear that finding poll-by-poll election results in previous elections, acquiring demographic information about those polls, developing materials about a candidate's record, sending out messages including producing and distributing videos even public opinion polling, is now or soon will be, far more effective using Internet technology than without it. Thus, it might be expected that the Internet, in combination with other advanced technology, will make it easier than in the past to influence voters, ridings and election results.

At a recent conference on campaigns and elections in the United States, a number of speakers noted that e-mail is even more important than a Web site and that the key to successful Internet campaigning is getting visitors to a Web site to volunteer their e-mail addresses to receive future announcements.

From experience, we know we can, on average, shift 4 percent of the vote. With this in mind, Environment Voters selects electoral districts for campaigning that, based on the voting history, will likely be decided by this amount or less. Environment Voters only campaigns in electoral districts that are held by members of the governing party. They are the only politicians voters can hold accountable for the government's environmental record. Whether campaigning in favour of the governing party's candidate or in opposition, the process is generally the same and the latest political campaign techniques are used.

To find out where to campaign in an electoral district, we do a three-election poll-by-poll voting history analysis. Core votes and swing areas are identified. To find out who we'll be talking to and what to say, we acquire demographic information and conduct detailed opinion surveys in the swing areas. We prepare extensive dossiers and profiles on the incumbent, which include press clippings, still images, and video from the House of Commons. We also gather similar information about the challengers, as they become known.

From the research we develop our political messages. Videos are used to carry the message. They are distributed door to door, and other direct media, such as the telephone and the mails, may also be used.

... Elections are a zero sum game. One candidate's damage is another's good fortune. A poll-by-poll analysis done after the Ontario election showed an average of a 5.46 percent decline in the PC vote, the targeted candidates' vote, in the polls where Environment Voters campaigned compared to a 0.95 percent decline where we didn't campaign.

As for the Liberals at the provincial level, who are the major beneficiaries of the Environment Voters campaign, in the Environment Voters polls the Liberals increased by an average of 14.31 percent, compared to 8.81 percent in polls where Environment Voters did not campaign.

Environment Voters campaigns, which are highly targeted and research based, using modern communication techniques, tend to work. Untargeted generic political advertising about issues have little, if any, effect.


What, if anything, do you think needs to be done to ensure that the Internet does not bring the integrity of Canada's electoral system into question?

The respondents mentioned a variety of potential issues, although the general view was that the Internet is not likely to interfere with the integrity of the Canadian electoral process. For example: "It's difficult to imagine any manifestation of the Internet being able to bring the integrity of Canada's electoral system into question. The intrusive media, television and radio, where the voter has no choice but to watch and listen is where the greatest threat to the integrity of Canada's electoral system lies. There is an incredible hype about the Internet, which is raising amazing fears, but none of the fear has substance."

One respondent wrote: "If the voting public perceive that it is up to election administrators, e.g. Elections Canada, to 'ensure that the Internet does not bring the integrity of Canada's electoral system into question,' I think it is an impossible task. The ease with which anyone can establish a Web site makes it impossible to monitor the Internet. The only thing that can be realistically done is to respond to issues brought to the administrator's attention by concerned parties. Even then, any remedies would be applied well after an electoral event.

"The long-term impact of the Internet on the electoral system is impossible to predict. However, it may ultimately result in improvements to the electoral system such as universal access to a ballot, removing barriers to voting by the disabled, timely access to campaign financial disclosure information, etc. ...

"Concerns about the integrity of the electoral system and of individuals and parties may arise as a result of threats, lies, deliberate misinformation or hacking to corrupt another's site. These are not areas normally overseen by election administrators."

Another respondent stated: "We believe that Elections Canada should look into the mischievous use of Internet. For example, the running of a site that used a candidate's or party's name in a way that would lead people to assume they were at the site of that party. We have already seen people buying up domain names in order to hold a party or candidate to ransom. The more insidious danger is that such a site would be used to spread lies. The site may well be registered and stored outside of Canada by a person or group. How you regulate for this is a problem. One area that might be discussed is the role of Elections Canada's own Web site in directing people to correct sites if rogue sites become a problem."

Continuing on this theme, a different respondent wrote: "Laws need to be applied in equivalent fashion on-line and off-line. This means that campaign finance issues are dealt with in the same manner and that actions that would merit sanction off-line face the same for on-line conduct. I'm thinking particularly of defamatory e-mails posted out on the Web or 'third party' sites that are really a cover for an official party."

Conversely, another respondent stated: "Portions of [Bill] C-2 attempt to control spending on the Internet as C-2 does with traditional media. While this may be desirable, it is not possible or practical. Canada does not have the power to enforce its laws extraterritorially on non-Canadians. ...The C-2 provisions regarding the Internet are legally and technologically moot."

One respondent said: "Canada must choose not to be a pioneer in the area of Internet voting. There are many serious technical as well as legal matters that must be carefully considered before even thinking about experimenting with Internet voting schemes."

Another respondent mentioned how difficult it will be to ensure that voters in the West do not obtain information about how voters in the East voted until the Western polls are closed. Voters could always phone a friend in the East in the past, but e-mail and Web sites now make it more likely that more Western voters will have access to Eastern results than before. A solution that the respondent suggested would be to ensure that all polls close at the same real time: for example 7:00 p.m. in British Columbia and 11:00 p.m. in Nova Scotia. Alternatively, the polling hours could remain as they are, but the counting of the votes would not begin until the same time across the country. If the desire is to ensure that Atlantic Canadians do not have to stay up late for the results, the counting of the votes could be postponed to the next day.

One respondent wrote about the fact that traditional media ignore smaller political parties. While television, radio and, to a lesser extent, the print media, can claim lack of time or space as a reason to focus only on the major parties, there are no such limits on the Web sites of the news media. "To leave a party out is essentially to lie, and I believe this compromises the integrity of the election system and should be regulated by Elections Canada."

Bill C-2 and the Internet

In addition, if you have any comments about Bill C-2, the proposed new Canada Elections Act, where it may relate to the Internet, your comments would be welcome.

Bill C-2 has a number of provisions that are relevant to the Internet. Part 17 of the Bill (sections 349 to 362) regulates election advertising by third parties parties that engage in political advertising but who do not field candidates. Part 16 of the Bill deals with communications, and section 319 defines "election advertising" as "an advertising message that promotes or opposes a registered party or the election of a candidate, including one that takes a position on an issue with which a registered party or candidate is associated." The definition continues with an important provision specifically dealing with the Internet [paragraph (d)]:

  • For greater certainty, it [election advertising] does not include
  • (a) the transmission to the public of an editorial, a debate, a speech, an interview, a column, a letter, a commentary or news;
  • (b) the distribution of a book, or the promotion of the sale of a book, for no less than its commercial value, if the book was planned to be made available to the public regardless of whether there was to be an election;
  • (c) the transmission of a document directly by a person or a group to their members, employees or shareholders, as the case may be; or
  • (d) the transmission by an individual, on a noncommercial basis on what is commonly known as the Internet, of his or her personal political views.

Thus, Bill C-2 is clear that there are at least some kinds of election information placed on the Internet that will not be considered election advertising and therefore will not be subject to the regulation of election advertising by third parties under Part 17 of the Bill. However, note that candidates and political parties have their election expenses regulated, and thus expenses related to their Web sites would be included in the calculation of election expenses, even if they are not "advertising". (Bill C-2 defines election expenses in section 407. In addition, election expenses are limited by the Act.)

Among the comments from our respondents about Bill C-2 and the Internet, one stated: "Third parties should be prevented from doing advertising on their own. In our view Web sites of third parties would not fall under such a ban. Though the information could be exactly the same, we believe there is a distinction between Web sites that give information to people who seek it from that site and means such as mailings, billboards, TV, etc., which seek to reach people who otherwise were not looking for the information."

Another respondent wrote: "As far as I can tell, the 'blackout period' for polling information has been significantly reduced [it is now 24 hours, polling day], and there are exemptions [from] heavy-handed regulations for individuals posting political information on the Web [see paragraph 319(d) above]."

The respondent went on to stress the importance of anonymous political advertising. "Forcing people to identify themselves publicly whenever they express a political opinion interferes with this right by eliminating the secrecy of their voting intentions, causing people to self-censor rather than reveal their political viewpoint (which may have negative consequences for employment and so on), and this suppression of political discourse infringes on the rights of every Canadian to have access to the diversity of political opinions that exist in our society."

In contrast, another respondent wrote that Bill C-2 should provide for more timely disclosure of donations received by parties. "Filings should be made at least on a quarterly basis, with a date attached to each donation. The ability to file and post on the Internet means that all donations up to the ... end of each quarter could easily be available within days of that date. In the case of election period filings, the report should be filed one week before the election date, and no donations should be accepted in that last week of the campaign. This would ensure that voters will know who is donating to each candidate and party before they make their decision." Under the current system, donations made in January of one year do not become known until the July of the following year, 18 months later. This same respondent also recommended that Elections Canada improve the ability to search financial information on Elections Canada's Web site by allowing for an on-line keyword searchable database so that users can go to the Web site, type a donor's name, and see all donations made by that donor to any party or candidate, without having to download large and numerous files.

One of the blackout provisions in Bill C-2 relates to election advertising on polling day (section 323). Section 324 provides that the blackout does not apply to "the transmission, before the blackout period described in that subsection, of a message that was previously transmitted to the public on what is commonly known as the Internet and that was not changed during that period." Thus, where there is election advertising on an Internet site before election day and that advertising is not changed on polling day, then the advertising does not infringe section 323.

Section 326 of Bill C-2 stipulates that six specific pieces of information about public opinion polls must be published (e.g. margin of error, who sponsored the poll, among other items). Subsection (2) adds two other pieces of information in the case of transmission to the public by means other than broadcasting (e.g. newspapers and the Internet). These two extra pieces are: (a) the wording of the survey questions and (b) the means by which a report on the survey results can be obtained.

Section 330 prohibits the use of broadcasting stations outside of Canada to attempt to influence voters in Canada. This prohibition does not apply to the Internet. However, section 331 states: "No person who does not reside in Canada shall, during an election period, in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate unless the person is (a) a Canadian citizen; or (b) a permanent resident as defined in subsection 2(1) of the Immigration Act."

None of the broadcasting provisions in Bill C-2 apply to the Internet. (See the definition of broadcasting in section 2, which is defined as broadcasting that is regulated and supervised by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission. To date, the CRTC is not regulating any broadcasting that may appear on the Internet, and has concluded that the majority of the material on the Internet is not "broadcasting" in nature.)


While recent surveys report that one-quarter or so of Canadians have Internet access at home, it is clear that the proportion of such Canadians will increase dramatically in the coming years. Nonetheless, given the nature of the Internet and how people use it, it does not appear that the Internet will pose serious threats to the integrity of the Canadian electoral system, although some enforcement problems are likely. On the whole, it would seem that the Internet has a strong potential for allowing Canadians to express their political views and to link up with like-minded individuals more easily and less expensively than ever before.


The opinions expressed are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada.