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11.13.2009 Twitter, Internet undermine Canada election rule

By David Ljunggren

OTTAWA (Reuters) - Twitter 1, Elections Canada 0.

In this era of smartphones and the Internet, the federal elections agency is struggling to enforce a rule that bans the general broadcasting of voting results until all the polls have closed.

As Canadians in four electoral districts spread right across the giant country cast ballots on Monday to fill vacant seats in the House of Commons, Elections Canada asked a newspaper to remove from its website a story revealing initial results from one constituency where voting had ended early.

The agency did not notice reporters had been discussing the same by-election results on the microblogging network Twitter, which is accessible across Canada.

One journalist even sent a Twitter message saying "Oh dear. Have just realized I may have been violating law because of my poor understanding of Twitter". Elections Canada did nothing.

It is little wonder that critics use terms like absurd and archaic to describe a provision that, in large part, comes from an era before the Internet was born.

The rule -- part of the Canada Elections Act -- aims to prevent abuses in the world's second largest country. Canada has six time zones, which means results from the East start to come in while polls are still open in the rest of the country.

To head off the chance that the majority could somehow be influenced by early voting, media organizations are banned from nationally broadcasting any results until the last polling station has closed.

That said, television and radio stations can broadcast regional results as long as the signal is contained within that region. But this fails to take into account that a voter out West with the right kind of satellite dish can access an eastern station broadcasting results.

And of course, posting data on the Internet is easy.

It is no surprise therefore that the rule has failed to prevent a string of breaches, some deliberate and some accidental, in federal elections over the last decade.

"Elections Canada is still stuck in this dark age, they're trying to be Big Brother," said Peter Coleman, president of the National Citizens Coalition, a right-leaning lobby group advocating the end of the restriction.

"Technology has changed so much that they can't stop this stuff from going on anyway ... I think it's an archaic law and it should just disappear," he told Reuters on Tuesday.

Only one person has ever been prosecuted and he took his case all the way to the Supreme Court before losing in 2007. The judges said "maintaining public confidence in the electoral system requires some method of restraining publication of election results until most or all Canadians have voted".

Although Elections Canada now staggers voting times, results from the 32 parliamentary constituencies -- known as ridings -- in the four easternmost provinces start rolling in around 90 minutes before polls close in the rest of Canada.

"I'm not convinced millions of Canadians will rush out and switch how they're going to vote based on how the 32 ridings in Atlantic Canada voted," said Chris Waddell, a journalism professor at Ottawa's Carleton University.

"The law has been unenforceable for quite a while and as time goes by it gets more and more unenforceable."

As part of the Supreme Court challenge, the relevant part of the law was suspended for the June 2004 federal election, when radio and TV stations could broadcast results as soon as they started coming in.

"We ran an election when the rule wasn't in place and the world didn't fall apart," said Waddell.

An Elections Canada spokesman declined to say whether the law still made sense. The agency reports to Parliament through the office of Jay Hill, who directs the government's day to day business in the legislature.

Hill's office referred inquiries to Steven Fletcher, the junior minister for democratic reform. Fletcher's office declined to comment.