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Nora Loreto's blog

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Nora Loreto is a writer, musician and activist based in Québec City. She is the author of From Demonized to Organized, Building the New Union Movement and is the editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media. She writes regularly for blogs and magazines, and wrote a chapter in Canada After Harper, released by Lorimer Publishers in August 2015.

Automating elections and privatizing democracy: What's wrong with counting by hand?

| October 1, 2014
[Canadian Ballot from 2008]

When Mike O'Neill admitted that he's a federalist on The Current, it shouldn't have been a surprise. He's a former Liberal Party staffer and strategist, after all. But his admission was during an interview on Scottish independence, and his involvement with the Yes campaign.

O'Neill's company, First Contact had been hired by the Yes campaign more than a year in advance to provide data-driven analysis to assess support and target people. You see, money has no allegiance.

First Contact offers services that were once the sole domain of party activists: "Identification of voters using our VoterID service, persuasion calling, GOTV, TeleForum™, automated polling, voice broadcasting, membership recruitment, live transfer calls and virtual call centre."

O'Neill was on the show with another Canadian whose company was involved in the Yes campaign, Erin Kelly. Her company, Zero Pi, offered data-analytics support. Zero Pi is already committed to work for a political party in the 2015 federal election, though she declined to say which one.

All parties use private services like these. So much so that the work of these services is ubiquitous. When the Conservatives were under fire for the Robocalls scandal, did anyone question the involvement of RackNine beyond the tactics they employed? It's as if to say that the use of these companies is fine, as long as election laws are obeyed.

And that is a fair argument. In the digital era, private companies provide the building blocks of campaign DNA. From new and innovative platforms, to communications and PR firms, from strategists to call centres, nearly all of the work of an election campaign could be outsourced.

This means that elections are more lucrative than ever before. Profits no longer hinge on who wins alone. And, while there's nothing new about professional campaigners who arrive for election time and disappear, increasingly, parties are outsourcing the core operations of their campaigns.

Much of the excitement about campaigns that are "data-driven" is no doubt a hangover from the 2008 Obama victory. Liberals and NDPers alike continue to salivate over the campaign tactics from the Democratic campaigns.

As campaigns become increasingly mechanized, what effect does this have on the politics of the campaign? Are party activists shut out when the war room bows to the demands of the consultants?

This creeping privatization is both unsurprising and deeply alarming. In an era where many of us spend hours giving content to Facebook and Twitter and making them profitable, it isn't a stretch to think that election campaigns need to use the same platforms.

But it's alarming because these tools are necessarily populist. They give campaign strategists great room to maneuver away from the core demands of a party's base. These tools are driven by conceiving of voters as individuals: what are the key words, the buzz themes and the "goodies" that we can promise to inch people toward our sides.

They employ strategies that might win campaigns, but that can be deeply disenfranchising. It sees party members as money bags rather than active and engaged members and citizens to whom candidates should remain accountable.

At the same time, people of all political stripes are calling for elections to become more automated. Outsourcing campaigning is part of a broader phenomenon where elections themselves are becoming more and more private.

Private company Dominion Voting administered the New Brunswick election. They made headlines when errors in file-transfer caused delays and concerns about the integrity of the vote. While it's unlikely that the errors had an impact on the result, the fact that Elections New Brunswick has outsourced parts of its election to a private company must be scrutinized.

Allan Woods at the Toronto Star reported that at least a dozen Ontario municipalities are using Dominion Voting in the 2014 municipal election. Five years ago, Iain Marlow wrote that in the five years previous to that, the firm grew 10,356 per cent.

Dominion Voting, of course, is a for-profit corporation. They received $67,800 from Elections Canada in 2010. While the contract between them and Laurentian Valley Township for the 2014 municipal election doesn’t include the amount paid to Dominion Voting, senior technical staff are worth $4,000 per day. The contract's worth is based on the number of electors, which in this case, is 8,800 people.

The contract also says that third party software may be used and that the Township consents to the terms and conditions of the third party. It doesn't list who these third parties might be or what their terms and conditions are.

As competent as I'm sure Dominion Voting is at conducting elections, it is deeply unsettling to know that elections, supposedly the cornerstone of Western democracy, are being outsourced to the private sector, for profit. Especially since I can’t see a legitimate argument for doing this.

Apparently, we're so comfortable with the private sector that outsourcing elections, from the campaigns to the mechanisms of voting, that news about the use of Dominion Voting has barely triggered a public debate. We’re comfortable handing out election administration because results come in faster. We're comfortable with agents-for-hire, loyal only to who pays, targeting voters because it's more efficient.

We're comfortable only if we refuse to confront the fact that these changes fundamentally alter our institutions. But when in context, when we think about widespread voter disengagement, low voter turnout, more cynical political strategists and even more cynical citizens, these trends should worry all of us.

During the night of the Scottish referendum, many Canadians expressed surprise with how the Scots were counting their ballots. Ballot counting by hand seemed so archaic.

But it isn't, and many Canadian elections are still administered by bureaucrats who have been hired to do just that. Like Canada Post, the CBC, public transit and public parks, it's in our collective best interest to ensure public services remain public.

It's hard to resist privatization when it seems to have crept into all aspects of our lives. But when it’s a simple choice: one that's between outsourcing the work of choosing our next government or maintaining the control and knowledge in the public domain, it's easy.

Image: Flickr/Dean Shareski

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