Reporting of election results finally to go 21st century

LofG, ch. 3, p. 129.

As discussed in LofG, the Canada Elections Act sets out the times that polling stations will remain open in each part of the country. These times are somewhat staggered to account for time zone changes, but there is still a period of time in which the polls remain open in western parts of the country while they have closed in the east.

Parliament attempted to deal with this dilemma by banning the reporting of election results from another part of the country in an area in which polling stations remain open. This obviously violates free speech.  In R. v. Bryan, the Supreme Court of Canada held that the resulting Charter section 2 infringement was justified under section 1. In a split-court judgment, it held that the objective of the law was “to ensure informational equality”. In the Court’s view, overturning the ban would provide some voters with preferential access to information that could affect voter choices.

In LofG, we signal skepticism of this decision. Even if all results from Atlantic Canada were to be reported before the western polls close, these Atlantic results would not show which party had won the election. Logically, it is only when a likely overall winner can be discerned that the western vote could be influenced in the way feared. This possibility arises only when the Ontario and Quebec results are available, but these results are not available until the polls in these two provinces close, something that occurs only thirty minutes prior to the close of BC voting. In other words, the staggered polling hours across the country already effectively accomplish the objectives of ensuring ignorance of the election’s direction (and possible outcome) while western Canadians (and more concretely, BC residents) are casting their ballots.

More than this, the law is just plain unenforceable in the modern age. With modern broadcasting techniques such as the Internet and cable and satellite television, it is unlikely that a publication ban will now ever be effective in preventing polling results from reaching western voters.

Happily, today the government announced (tweeted in fact) that the ban would be lifted.

This is a sensible decision: it affirms free speech and discards an ill-considered, futile and rather paternalistic measure.