Having volunteered and worked on political campaigns for about 15 years now, one thing I’ve learned is that there are always new things to learn. Whether it be a new campaign technique, changes in the electoral laws or new technologies, things are always evolving in the pursuit of getting people out to vote for your candidates. The speed in which that evolution happens seems to get faster and faster, like with everything else in life. And as with everything else in life, the laws always seem to be a step behind. We’ve seen a great example of this playing out over the past few months, one that’s gotten a lot of people’s attention:
Yep, almost everyone has received this annoying texts, from an “anonymously” named “person”, either representing a party up front, or representing a group (which is discovered after some digging), asking us to answer a question or pushing their point of view. Amazingly with two cell phones (one personal and one work), I have somehow been blessed by avoiding those texts, but it seems that everyone around me, either at work or in my personal life, has received them.
Texting voters has become the new way of contacting voters to potentially identify support, collect data or simply to broadcast a message. In this day and age when fewer and fewer people have landlines and more people simply own a cell phone, it’s become harder for parties to reach voters than it was in the past. Running a phone bank is less fruitful when you have less people with actual landlines, and it’s only been recently that it’s been seen as more appropriate to call cell numbers. And when it comes to calling people, there are rules around it. Even with the development of technology, the existing rules have held up when it comes to calls.
But the same cannot be said for texting. Simply put, the rules around that technology simply don’t exist yet and so far, it’s a bit of a legal and ethical blind spot for election campaigns. And that doesn’t even go into how voters feel about the use of this technology for campaigns. Last month when people starting getting these anonymous texts from “Sue” asking about their thoughts on the carbon tax, we really started to see the unease and anger around the technique come to the surface. For many, it felt like a step too far and a bit of an invasion of privacy. Despite that blowback, the story above points to how the Conservatives are continuing on with the technology regardless.
With the advent of this technology and this technique, it does raise the interesting question about if this practice should be allowed and if so, how it is regulated? Do you ban the practice of being able to purchase cellphone numbers, as you can now? Do you include political parties in the “Do Not Call registry” and remove the exemption that they currently have? These are all legitimate questions to be asked and studied because I believe that in this day and age, something has to change.
I agree that parties have the right to be able to reach out to voters to try to earn their votes, but at the same time, I think there should be some rule change to allow people to stop being pestered by parties who they have already rejected. Back in the day when most voter contact happened by people at the door, by mail or by phone, the individual voter had much more control over the interaction. The odds of a canvasser coming to their door was small, so most didn’t worry about that. If you received a flyer or something in the mail, you could just get rid of it. And if you did get called when you were actually home, you could politely say “No Thank You” and hang up.
But today with cell phones glued to us going everywhere all the time, it’s harder to duck those calls and easier to get pestered by them. And when you add texting into the mix, it becomes all the harder for individual voters to control these interactions. The balance has surely shifted. So it would feel natural to me that a change in those rules should come, to bring that balance back and to give voters a way to opt out. And I believe most parties would actually welcome this to a degree, as it would help them identify voters who don’t want to speak with them.
None of this will happen before this election is over, but I hope that after it’s done our elected officials and Elections Canada will give some serious consideration to overhauling some of these rules to catch up to the technology and techniques available today. The health of our democracy depends on the rules that govern our elections staying up to date, and I understand that in this age of things moving quickly, that can be much harder. But that’s not an excuse to not get it done. That’s why it needs to get done, and it’s not an unrealistic expectation.