Televoting for Canadians: Lessons from Party Leadership Contests

By R. Kenneth Carty | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Autumn 1996 | Go to article overview

Televoting for Canadians: Lessons from Party Leadership Contests


R. Kenneth Carty, Canadian Parliamentary Review


This article looks at previous examples of televoting for selecting party leaders and explores something of the reaction of televoters themselves to the process. What was their experience with televoting? What do they think about it? In the end, it is answers to questions like these that are likely to determine whether or not televoting will be acceptable in the wider political system.

On February 28, 1996, the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada sent a report to Parliament calling for a wide-ranging series of amendments to the Canada Elections Act. The many proposals reflect the impact of rapid changes transforming both the country's social organization and its evolving democratic norms, as well as the new technologies available for conducting elections. At the same time, the report implicitly points to the organizational rigidities inherent in a system in which detailed electoral procedures must be spelled out in legislation that is, by its nature, not always easy to amend. One recommendation calls for giving the Chief Electoral Officer the power to conduct pilot projects in order to "test new electoral procedures". The intention is obviously to allow the CEO to experiment with rapidly changing technologies and procedures before proposing that they be adopted across the system. The example the report offers is telephone voting.

For many, telephone voting seems almost inevitable, an obvious feature of the electronic democracy that seems to be rushing towards us. Its promoters argue that televoting technology promises real organizational efficiencies and that televotes may be the tool by which a continuous universal franchise becomes a vital aspect of public decision-making. Others, less sanguine, fear that televoting will become one more aspect of an increasingly alienating and fragmenting electoral process in which the collective, public dimension of politics gives way to a set of individualized, private interactions.

While small scale tests of televoting (perhaps in by-elections as suggested by the CEO) might help to evaluate the broader utility of the technology, the fact is that we already have some important evidence. Since 1992, four Canadian provincial political parties have now used televoting to choose their leader, one of whom has gone on to become a premier. (1) What do the stories of those leadership contests tell us about the strengths and weaknesses of televoting? The analyses done on three of these contests have revealed much about the impact of new processes of leadership selection for the parties and the decisions they made. (2)

Provincial Party Televotes

The record of the four provincial leadership televotes is mixed. None of them involved very large electorates yet two were beset by technical difficulties. The numbers voting were: Saskatchewan Conservatives 3,298; British Columbia Liberals 6,540; Nova Scotia Liberals 6,998 and Alberta Liberals 11,004. The Nova Scotia Liberal televote, the first to use the new technology, had a system crash and the party was forced to rerun the vote two weeks later; the Alberta Liberal party leadership vote had a number of difficulties and at one point balloting had to be suspended so that the phone lines could be cleared and the process restarted. These experiences, with the two largest of the party electorates, are hardly encouraging. On the other hand, however, it must be noted that the Nova Scotians were ultimately able to use the televote over two successive ballots on the same day and the Albertans did manage to conduct a preferential vote on its second ballot. These were no mean feats for a new and unfamiliar (to the voters and candidates alike) process. By contrast the British Columbian and Saskatchewan televotes went smoothly and were generally regarded a success.

Adopting televoting for party leadership contests has been one aspect of a general movement away from delegate conventions and towards direct votes by the entire party membership.

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