Canadians spread across six time zones will go to the polls on Monday for a federal election — and God help anyone in an eastern time zone whose polls close earlier and wants to broadcast local results to someone out west:
Section 329 of the Canada Elections Act  bans anyone from transmitting local poll results to other electoral districts on election night until polls close in that area.
Elections Canada recently warned social media users that results posted in the May 2 vote to Twitter or on Facebook walls will violate the 1938 law. The maximum punishment is $25,000 or up to five years in prison.
Reaction from Twitter users was swift, with some declaring plans to launch a “tweet-in” to overwhelm the electoral body by flooding the system with Tweets revealing results.
It should go without saying that this is a silly law that’s practically unenforceable in the “Twitter Age,” and I’m not going to waste any time probing this subject in-depth. But this story got me thinking about the nature of elections themselves. Canadian legislators adopted Section 329 because of concern that broadcasting false election results from the east might unduly influence late voting in the west. Like most election mandates or restrictions, it’s an attempt to create a static environment where democracy can take place under near-laboratory conditions.
Here in the United States, there’s constant hand-wringing over every aspect of the electoral process. In 2000 there was a national nervous breakdown as judges, lawyers, and election officers in Florida examined punchcard ballots as if they were the ruins of a lost Mayan city. There’s a never-ending push from some leftists to force 100% taxpayer funding of election campaigns in the name of “leveling” the playing field. And following last year’s census, the decennial battle over redistricting resumed between incumbent politicians who want to redraw districts to their own advantage against those who demand “nonpartisan” electoral cartography.
So what does all this election-ridden angst get us? Actually, most people don’t care one way or the other. Even when a majority of those eligible do so, most of those voters are not concerned with the mechanics of the election itself. Most active voters simply follow their pre-existing party preferences. The rest — what analysts call “independent” or “undecided” voters — are basically impulse shoppers. They see some party or candidate at the last minute and are intrigued long enough to pull the lever.
Voting decisions aren’t much different than any of the thousands of other decisions we make as consumers each year. In the US, there are two well-established national brands of politician, and for the most part they satisfy the demands of the most active consumers in that market. Yes, these brands use the state to maintain their position in the market, but that’s true of any number of industries today. If there was really a strong demand for a “third” party, the political marketplace would find some way to satisfy that demand.
(Similarly, some Canadian pundits bemoan the country’s current four-party deadlock that has produced three successive “minority” governments; yet the voting public at-large doesn’t seem too concerned, as they keep returning minority governments to power.)
Much of what so-called reformers decry as flaws in the electoral system are actually unremarkable features of any marketplace. Political parties spend billions on advertising. Reformers deem it wasteful. Yet Coke and Pepsi also spend billions on advertising — despite the fact they are well-known national brands who dominate a market where it’s relatively easy to produce a competing product.
As for redistricting, what critics call “Gerrymandering” is just an elaborate form of market research. Any firm seeks to identify its target audience as accurately as possible. Political parties are no different.
Now there are two essential differences between the market for political parties and those for most other products. For non-political goods, consumers “go to the polls” every single day without exception. And the firms selling those goods are pursuing profits. For political goods, elections are held at fixed intervals and the seller’s primary objective isn’t profit, but the acquisition of power.
With non-political goods, there’s no concern about ensuring “perfect” conditions. Markets are messy by design, or lack thereof. Indeed, it’s the purveyors of political goods who erroneously think they can improve the non-political market by imposing their false aspirations of perfection. Yet even the political sellers can’t guarantee Nirvana within their own market. Hence decrees like Canada’s Section 329.