At the time this article was written
Heather MacIvor was Professor of Political Science at the University of
Windsor. This article is based on her presentation at the Candian Study Of
Parliament Conference on "Interactive Government" in November 1996.
This article looks at two
specific areas of politics where computer and communication technologies are
playing an increasing role: party leadership selection and communication
between party organizations and their members. It argues that these
technologies do have some applications in politics, when they work properly,
but they are not a panacea for apathy, disaffection, ignorance and prejudice.
Indeed, on those scores, they probably do more harm than good.
Much of my recent work has been
devoted to explaining why, to date, nineteen of Canada’s major federal and
provincial parties have stopped using the traditional leadership convention to
choose their leaders and switched to various forms of universal membership
voting (UMV).1 There are five forms of UMV, of which the most
relevant here is telephone UMV. It allows all registered party members to vote
directly for the leadership candidate of their choice, either at a central
party gathering or at home. The first Canadian party to use telephone UMV was
the Nova Scotia Liberal Party. It has since been followed by the Liberals in
British Columbia and Alberta, and by the Progressive Conservatives in
Saskatchewan and Nova Scotia.
Four of the five parties just
mentioned used the tele-voting system developed by Maritime Tel and Tel, which
was later spun off into a tele-voting subsidiary called MT&T Technologies.
The tele-voting system is rather complicated, because it has to guarantee both
tight security and a secret vote.
The voter dials the 1-800 or 1-900
MT&T number, and hears a recorded message asking her to enter a PIN
(personal identification number). The PINs are eight-digit numbers randomly
generated by computer. One is assigned to each party member who has registered
and paid a fee to vote for the leader. If an incorrect PIN is entered, the voter
is asked to try again. A correctly entered PIN gives access to the voting
system. The voter is asked to enter the three-digit number corresponding to the
preferred candidate. The list of candidate names and numbers is included in the
PIN package mailed to the registered voter’s home, or given to her at the
convention registration desk. The voter enters the number, presses the star (*)
button on the telephone, and hears a recorded message in the voice of the
candidate whose number has been entered. The message thanks the caller for her
vote, and asks her to confirm by pressing star (*) again. If the voter has made
a mistake, she can press the number sign(#) button and return to the first
message. If the vote was correct, she confirms the vote and hears another brief
message from the candidate. Then the system plays a message thanking the voter,
confirming that the vote has been registered, and the call is automatically
MT&T created the first
tele-voting system for the Nova Scotia Liberals in 1992. At least three
characteristics of telephone UMV became apparent on the June weekend when
hundreds of Liberals lined up at telephone kiosks in the Halifax Metro Centre
and thousands more tried to vote from their homes. First, the party had to rely
on television to broadcast the candidates’ speeches, so party members at home
could see them. CBC Nova Scotia agreed to cover the voting gavel-to-gavel, but
the event lacked the drama of a traditional delegated convention and there was
not much for the reporters to talk about – until the second problem cropped up.
This second problem was technological: the computer system was overwhelmed by
the number of calls and it shut down. This failure embarrassed both the party
and the phone company, who were made to look foolish on live television.
There were also concerns about the
security of the computer and telephone systems. The CBC scanners picked up a
cell-phone call to MT&T which appeared to report the numbers of votes for
each candidate. In fact, the numbers were the totals of people trying to
vote for each candidate, not the actual vote totals. But the third-place
candidate was furious that the CBC had announced the numbers on the air, and
argued that the outcome had been skewed. Equally as damaging, a party member
later claimed he had bought and voted hundred of PINs himself, using a list of
phony names and addresses. There is no proof that this actually happened, but
the claim rattled the party and made some observers question the security of
Two weeks later, the technological
problems were fixed and the party elected Dr. John Savage as its leader without
further difficulty. But at this stage a fourth characteristic of tele-voting
became apparent. Only 41 percent of party members bothered to dial in.2 Here
is a paradox of technology and its relationship to democracy. The ostensible
purpose of technology is to allow more people direct access to the
political process, but fewer people are taking advantage of it.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that a majority of party members participated in
the selection of delegates to traditional leadership conventions. But parties
which have used telephone UMV – and indeed, all forms of UMV – have
experienced much lower turnout rates: from a high of 49 percent for the BC
Liberals3 to a low of 20 percent for the Alberta Liberals.4
Perhaps party members cannot be
bothered to perform a duty which does not require a get-together with their
The low turnout in a process
explicitly designed to permit the greatest possible participation is an example
of what Edward Tenner calls a "revenge effect".5 It
happens when a new technology creates an effect opposite to that which its
makers intended. One example is the computer and its associated gadgets – the
printer, the fax modem and the scanner – which had been expected to create a
paperless office. Instead, as Tenner points out in his book, these gadgets have
encouraged us to write more, to print out entire documents so we can fix one
mistake, to make more and more photocopies in case the computer breaks down. We
create more and more paper, swamping our offices and denuding forests at an
alarming rate. Revenge effects occur because new structures, devices and
organisms react with real people in real situations in ways we could not
foresee. But it seems to me that the people in charge of running a political
party, who know full well that socializing is a prime motivator for political
involvement, should have foreseen how little appeal a technology which left
party members isolated in their homes might have.
After the second, successful round
of tele-voting in Halifax, telephone UMV was a fad for about two years. The
British Columbia Liberals chose a new leader by phone in July 1993, and a more
sophisticated MT&T system worked perfectly. The third experience with
telephone UMV, not counting the leadership vote by the defunct National Party,
was the Alberta Liberal leadership vote in November 1994. This episode was more
problematic, and may have been the harbinger of the fad’s demise. The system
crashed, and hundred of party members could not be sure that their votes had
been recorded. MT&T Technologies fixed the system quickly, and two rounds
of voting were concluded on the same day, but the party was left bitterly
I was privileged to observe the
vote from inside the MT&T Technologies "bunker" in Halifax, where
I served as the Deputy Returning Officer. From where I sat, there were three
reasons for the Alberta Liberal fiasco. First, the constitution of the Alberta
Liberal Party was incompatible with the technology of tele-voting. Tele-voting
requires a period of several days between the registration of the voters and
the start of voting so that the PINs can be assigned and mailed out to the
people who will vote from their homes. But the Alberta Liberals had rewritten
their constitution to permit new members to join the party as late as the
evening before the vote. This did not permit sufficient time to get the PINs
out to all registered voters. Once again, "techno-democracy" was
revealed to be an oxymoron.
Second, one candidate consistently
abused the rules and, in so doing, threw the voting system into chaos, by
signing up thousands of instant members, most of them from the immigrant and
visible minority communities of Edmonton and Calgary. The media predicted that
2000 of these delegates would be ruled ineligible to vote, because the
candidate had paid their $10 registration fees in contravention of the rules.
But the Chief Returning Officer, decided to be lenient, which ultimately led to
disaster. The candidate in question asked the Chief Returning Officer to cast
some proxy votes on his behalf, explaining that some of his supporters did not
speak English well enough to use the tele-voting system. To the shock of the
organizers, the candidate turned up the evening before the vote with 3600
proxies. There was no way for the Chief Electoral Officer to enter that many
votes individually. This last-minute submission of the proxy votes, and the
delays in processing his new members, caused massive problems for the
tele-voting system, and particularly for the technicians and auditors in
Third, the MT&T technicians
underestimated the volume of votes which would be cast in the last half-hour of
the first voting period, and the hardware could not process them quickly
enough. This miscalculation, combined with the mass confusion caused by the
proxies, caused the system to break down. Once again, a party and MT&T were
embarrassed on live television as pundits, with nothing else to talk about,
ridiculed tele-voting and joked about a party which could not even choose its
own leader. Not surprisingly, when the system worked perfectly one week later
in Saskatchewan, the media ignored it.
The Nova Scotia Progressive
Conservatives improvised their own telephone voting system in 1995, when they
decided that they could not afford MT&T’s $100,000 project management fee.6
This was another sign of things to come.
The high cost of the tele-voting
system, together with the bad publicity arising from the Alberta Liberal
contest, have tarnished telephone UMV. The tele-democracy activities at
MT&T have been scaled back, and the company is now focusing on corporate
applications. The tele-voting technology may be adopted by Elections Canada for
enumeration, but that is not yet certain.
So the technophiles who applauded
telephone UMV as the democratic wave of the future may have been routed by the
cost and the limitations of the technology.
Technology and Democracy Within
The second area I wish to discuss
is the growing use of computer technology by political parties. In an era when
party leaders perceive a need for better communication with the grassroots,
1-800 numbers and computer links appear to be the perfect way to keep in touch.
In 1995 the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada introduced the National
Membership System (NMS), a computerized 1-888 telephone system which
distributes information to members and allows new members to sign up
All of the major parties now have
home pages on the World Wide Web, some of which are state-of-the-art. I gave
the students in my political parties course the URLs for the web sites, so that
if they wanted more information about a party they could contact the
headquarters directly. As a researcher, I have frequently found the web sites
very helpful. The Reform Party site is particularly informative.
However, I am not convinced that
these technological links will prove effective. For one thing, only 7.4 percent
of Canadian households actually use the Internet, according to Statistics
Canada.7 Angus Reid claims that 18 percent of Canadians have
Internet access at work but this is still far from a majority.8 One
might argue that party members have a higher degree of computer access and
sophistication than other people, given their higher than average levels of
education and income, and the likelihood that white-collar workers will have
access to computer networks at the office. However, I would be very surprised
if even a bare majority of party members are on-line, given the fact that party
members tend to be older than the average Canadian and older people are much
less likely to use computers. Second, Canadian party membership figures are
among the lowest in the Western world – less than 3 percent of the electorate,
according to reliable estimates9 – and there is no reason to expect
that a new technology will overcome decades of apathy, let alone the recent
upsurge of active hostility toward parties.
Before I return to my overall
argument, I want to talk about two harbingers of the future which I observed at
the recent Reform Party convention in Vancouver. First, the party’s unique
process for voting on policy resolutions is entirely dependent on the
availability and reliability of electronic technology. The rules are quite
unlike anything I have ever seen at a party convention. The voting delegates
from each province sit together at specially-designated tables, in groups of 8.
One of their number is chosen to be the "poll captain". There is an electronic
keypad at each table, wired to a central computer. The poll captain enters a
numerical code corresponding to the province represented by the delegates at
the table, and the number of delegates whose votes will be registered (up to
8). The party members debate each resolution (very briefly, it must be said),
and then the chair calls on the poll captains to poll their delegates. The
delegates indicate their support for or against the resolution by raising green
or red cards, the poll captain counts the votes, and enters the number of yes
votes followed by the number of no votes. The results are displayed instantly
on a large video screen, broken down by yes-no votes and by province. The
provincial breakdowns are necessary because the Reform constitution requires
that policy resolutions be adopted by a majority of provinces, not just a
majority of delegates overall. It is hard to imagine how these numbers could be
obtained without the electronic technology.
There was a brief delay at the
start of the convention, when it was discovered there were not enough keypads
and the room had to be re-wired. But once this glitch was overcome, the system
appeared to work beautifully – apart from the frequent necessity of
reinitializing the keypads. I was very impressed. However, I was somewhat
disillusioned by a chat I had with a poll captain from British Columbia on the
second day of policy voting. He told me that he was having serious problems
with the keypad. He would press the wrong number key sometimes, but he could
not change the number once it had been entered and so the error could not be
corrected. He also confessed that he had pushed the wrong numerical code during
startup the previous day, so that his table of BC delegates had been included
in the vote totals of another region. Finally, he complained that the delegates
at his table were not paying attention, were sometimes confused about what they
were voting on, and kept coming and going. He did not know what to do in their
absence: should he vote as he thought they would have voted? Should he allow a
more conscientious delegate to vote twice, because she was there and the
absentee was not? He seemed more amused than affronted by the problems, but
they did make me wonder about the marvellous new technology.
If parties want to attract more
members, the best thing they could do is to set up National Membership Systems
like the PCs and list the 1-888 numbers in every telephone book in the country.
It is not cutting-edge, but at the moment it shows a lot more promise than Web
pages and Internet chat groups.
Another problem with the
policy-voting system was pointed out to me by Alan Whitehorn, a fellow
political scientist and convention observer. He speculated that by having the
delegates vote in groups of eight, where everyone could see how everyone else
was voting, the system might create group pressure which overwhelmed the
private opinions of individuals at the table. In other words, a party member
might feel uncomfortable voting against the other seven delegates in his or her
group, and might just decide to go along with the consensus instead of
expressing his or her true opinion. I have no idea whether this actually
happened or not, but it is an interesting point to consider.
Another thing I noticed about the Reform
convention, particularly in the workshop on direct democracy, was a profound
concern that public opinion would be allowed to override the policy positions
which party members had just spent two days discussing. Several party members
took issue with the recommendation that MPs should vote in the House of Commons
as a majority of their constituents tell them to, through surveys, electronic
town halls and other forms of consultation, instead of following the
established wishes of a majority of the party membership. They pointed out that
if the party achieved its goal of a breakthrough in urban Ontario in the next
federal election, there would be several Reform MPs whose constituents would
likely oppose unrestricted gun ownership, a traditional definition of the
family, and other key planks in the party’s platform. Should such MPs vote
against the rest of the caucus, reflecting the wishes of constituents who did
not even support the Reform Party? Or should they vote instead for the policies
to which the party had committed itself during the election campaign which got
those MPs elected to the party had committed itself during the election
campaign which got those MPs elected to the House of Commons in the first
place? I do not know how this dilemma will be resolved; I suspect that it
cannot be. This tension in the party will continue to play out in the future,
whatever the result of next year’s federal election.
The Future of Techno-Democracy
To some extent, the potential of
techno-democracy depends on improvements in the technology itself. Problems
such as those encountered by the Liberals in Nova Scotia and Alberta will not
be tolerated, particularly by customers paying a hundred thousand dollars up
front. It will take a long time to erase the memories of the technological
fiascoes of 1992 and 1994, and only a series of perfect and highly publicized
tele-votes could accomplish this.
But the future of techno-democracy
depends more crucially on a factor beyond the realm of technology. It depends
on the state of democracy itself. Canadians, like the citizens of most Western
democracies, are not noted for their high levels of political interest,
information, and participation. In order for direct democracy to work, we do
not need tele-voting, electronic town halls, or interactive computer networks.
We do need several million informed, enthusiastic democrats. I do not mean
single-issue fanatics, anti-government cranks, or well-funded lobbyists. I mean
people with jobs and families, taking time away from their television sets and
golf games to acquire information and make a meaningful contribution to public
discourse in this country. Most Canadians already have the tools to do this. We
have a reasonably good system of public education, though it has a lot of room
for improvement, and we have vast amounts of information available to us in
newspapers, libraries, and public affairs programs, if we would only make the
effort to get it and use it. But we choose not to do so. If people refuse to
use inexpensive media of communication and information-gathering, why on earth
would they invest thousands of dollars in computers just to participate in
public deliberation? How can new tools help us to rebuild democracy when most
people neither know nor care that the job needs to be done?
No amount of fibre-optic cable can
make up for an apathetic, ignorant political culture. The answer to our
democratic malaise lies not in a broader distribution of technology; it lies in
a revival of public spirit and communal responsibility. And given the isolating
and narcotic effects of most new technologies, particularly direct-broadcast
satellites, Nintendo, VCRs, and the Internet, public spirit and communal
responsibility are the very last things one would expect them to promote. Jean
Bethke Elshtain argues that the isolation of CuberHumanity is perfectly suited
to the techno-democratic vision put forward by some parties and individuals – a
vision which is really anti-democratic in its process and results.
What those who push such
techno-solutions fail to appreciate is that plebiscitary majoritarianism is
quite different from the dream of a democratic polity sustained by debate and
judgement. Plebiscites have been used routinely to shore up anti-democratic,
majoritarian movements and regimes – Argentinean Peronism comes to mind. ...
True democracy requires a mode of participation with one’s fellow citizens
animated by a sense of responsibility for one’s society. The participation of
plebiscitarianism is dramatically at odds with this democratic ideal. Watching
television and pushing a button is a privatizing experience; it appeals to us
as consumers, consumers of political decision-making in this instance, [and]
not as public citizens.10
For my part, I am far from hopeful
about the future of democracy, no matter what happens to technology. No one who
has surfed the political newsgroups on the Net can fail to be appalled by the
cynicism, rancour, and ignorance on display. Here is the most extraordinary
opportunity for public discourse since the agora of Athens, and all the demos
of the Net can do is insult each other while spouting their prejudices in prose
which makes the average freshman essay look like Shakespeare. This gutter level
of discourse should teach us a healthy skepticism about techno-democracy.
If Bill Gates strikes you as a
modern Pericles, you are more hopeful about the future of democracy than I.
From where I sit, he looks a lot more like King Midas. A figure less likely to
rejuvenate true democracy can hardly be imagined.
This brings me to my final point.
The new technologies which I have been discussing are largely controlled by
profit-making corporations operating in a free market. The logic of
profit-making undermines the logic of democracy, if we take democracy to be a
process of rational deliberation by well-informed citizens, as a glance at most
mass-market newspapers and television channels will confirm. Benjamin Barber, a
former techno-democracy enthusiast, paints a bleaker – and, I think, a more
accurate picture in his latest book, Jihad vs. McWorld:
Telecommunications technology has
the capability for strengthening civil society, but it also has a capacity for
unprecedented surveillance and can be used to impede and manipulate as well as
to access information. ... The market has no particular interest in the civic
possibilities of technology – unless they can generate a respectable profit
(which generally they cannot).11
If Barber is right, then the only
way to create a techno-democracy is by reverting to that most unfashionable of
entities, a Crown corporation. Private entrepreneurs will not perform their
democratic functions adequately so long as their primary goal is a healthy
bottom line. Unless we are prepared to claw back some legitimacy for the
collective activities of government in the name of the public good, unless we
are prepared to defy the current mood of short-sighted, privatizing hysteria,
we should drop the subject of techno-democracy right now.
Ultimately, technology is a tool,
no more and no less. It should be used correctly, for the proper ends, and it
should not be touted as the solution for problems which it cannot fix.
The computer and communications technology can process and disseminate reams of
information; but they cannot cure the ills of democracy.
1. See Heather MacIvor, "From
‘Emergence’ to Electronics: Explaining the Changes in Canadian Party Leadership
Selection, 1919-1995", National History, forthcoming, 1996.
2. Agar Adamson et al.,
"Pressing the Right Buttons: The Nova Scotia Liberals and Tele-Democracy",
paper presented to the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Political Science
Association, Ottawa, June 1993.
3. Donald E. Blake and R. Kenneth
Archer, An Analysis of Tele-voting in the British Columbia Liberal Party:
The Leadership Contest of 1993, MT&T, Halifax, April 1994, p. 6.
4. David K. Stewart and Keith
Archer, "Electronic Fiasco? An Examination of the 1994 Liberal Leadership
Selection in Alberta", paper presented to the 1996 Annual Meeting of the
Canadian Political Science Association, St. Catharines, June, 1996.
5. Edward Tenner, Why Things
Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Knopf,
New York, 1995.
6. Heather MacIvor, "Party
Leadership Selection in Canada: A Study of Change in Party Structures,
1985-1995", Queen’s University, PhD thesis, 1996, p. 313.
7. Alanna Mitchell, "Few
succumbing to Internet’s allure", Globe and Mail, October 24, 1995,
8. Angus Reid, Shakedown, How
the New Economy is Changing our Lives (Toronto: Doubleday, 1996) p. 96.
9. R. Kenneth Carty, Canadian
Political Parties in the Constituencies: A Local Perspective, volume 23 in
the collected research studies for the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and
Party Financing, Dundurn, Toronto, 1991, p. 29.
10. Jean Bethke Elshtain, Democracy
on Trial, Anansi, Toronto, 1993, pp. 27-8.
11. Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad
vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World,
Ballantine, New York, 1996, pp. 270-1.