13 May 2019

Ego, Brain Farts, and Electoral Reform #nlpoli

Public ignorance of our political system is a scourge. Tackling that is the first step to meaningful electoral reform in Newfoundland and Labrador.  The second priority is to make sure the players do not set the rules for everyone, as they have done repeatedly, and disastrously, since 2003. Most of all, we need to get on with reform, as soon as possible.
While there are many good reasons for electoral reform in Newfoundland and Labrador, most of the recent talk of changes to how elections run in the province is from people who want to give an advantage to a party they like.

Take the decision in 2015 to slash public representation in the House.  The Conservatives who were behind the notion, figured it would be easier to win a majority of 20 seats instead of 48. They knew they couldn’t get 24 but hoped they could cling to power with 20 or 21.  Depending on how the count goes on Thursday, they might be right.

The Liberals who backed the cuts, like Dwight Ball, were concerned only that the idea appeared popular.  They thought that by siding with a popular initiative they would gain favour with voters. 

Lots of popular things don’t drive votes and this was one of them.  If they thought about the electoral math – and there’s no sign they did – then they likely hit on the same self-serving reason the Conservatives did.  Depending on how the count goes on Thursday, they might be as right or as wrong as the Conservatives when they last held power.

Then there’s the business of fixed election dates.
Unfixed Election Dates

The Conservatives changed the election rules in 2004 purely for the sake of ego and brain farts.  Danny Williams was pissed off that he had to wait three years to become Premier, so he introduced what he claimed were fixed election dates.  He also buggered around with the law to try and force an election so no future Conservative demi-god would have to be held back from power by lesser mortals.

And just to really drive home the way brain farts work their evil, the changes to the fixed election dates introduced in 2015 along with the cut to representation did set an alternate date for the election unless the Premier had a concern on a particular day. Since the new section came after the first one, the whole exercise was moot anyway. That this mess went through the House with the support of the Liberals and Conservatives - and no one noticed or cared - is a good example of why we need more substantive changes in the House of Assembly than just buggering around with numbers and dates. 

Legally, fixed election dates in Newfoundland and Labrador have been nothing more profound than an agreement among the parties about when an election would take place next, all things being equal.  That’s not different from what happened before 2007 or what happened in 2015.  Parties knew an election would come at any time, but in practice, they could count on every three years or so.  The people in the parties understood the rules of the game, even if they weren’t written down, and everyone played.

For all the people – to a soul, New Democrat activists – who blamed their poor performance this time out on the supposed snap election, it is useful to look at the facts.  In elections before 2007, that is, the first “fixed” date, the NDP routinely fielded twice or three times as many candidates as they did in this election and with far less advance notice.

Click to enlarge

In this instance, the NDP knew an election as coming as long ago as 2015, arguably as long ago as 2007, and at the very least since some time last fall.  One of the reasons the party insiders fired former leader Gerry Rogers out through the door was that she had done absolutely nothing to put money in the bank, recruit candidates or anything else for an election *everyone* knew was coming sooner rather than later.

So, yeah.  The NDP are not in sad shape this time because of a snap election compared to the time of fixed dates before.


It’s about data

In this election, a few people have called for a ban on robocalls. The people who dislike robocalls are Liberals and New Democrats.  Their opposition to robocalls in 2019 is because they are not the ones using robocalls to reach voters. The cause of their anger is an outfit calling itself NL Proud.  It used to be NL Strong like the Ontario outfit it is related to.

The idea is simple. They can spread pro-Conservative messages while at the same time building up a tidy database of people who like their messages.  Knowing who your voters or potential voters are is the most useful piece of information any political group can have.

They might help push a few Conservative voters to the polls and make the difference in this election.  But NL Strong will finish the election cycle with a great database they can use in the fall against the federal Liberals. That’s the big prize.

The key thing to remember is that the people upset about robocalls on social media are not the target market for the folks making them.  There is nothing improper about the robocalls and the purpose to which they are being put is an exercise in free speech and democracy.  We might want to consider some rules about financial and other disclosure, since this is a group not officially affiliated with a political party, but otherwise we need to think hard about any suggestion to ban the activity altogether.

After all, campaigns are driven by data.  They always have been.  What the Strong or Proud groups are doing is basically the same as what the Liberals and others have been doing recently and parties always did. The change is in the technology.  The data used to be in people’s heads. Then it went on three by five index cards.  Then it went onto Excel or Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets.  Then it went into Access or something custom-built along the same lines.  And now it is LiberaList or whatever the party brand name is for their data management technology.

Look at it this way:  before 2015, the Liberals amassed a huge amount of information on voters in the province.    They had a competitive advantage but not an unfair one.  The Conservatives or New Democrats could have done the same thing.  They chose not to.

Robocalls and similar techniques allow parties to engage more voters directly. That is a very good thing at a time when turn-out is dropping like a stone.  It allows parties to contact voters using technology at a time when individuals are less and less involved in political parties.  They allow small parties to compete with larger ones.  It *should* be a technology the provincial New Democrats embrace precisely because it lets them fight in the big leagues as they otherwise haven’t been able to manage.

There’s also no inconvenience.  People can screen their calls using caller ID and just not answer calls from a number they do not recognize.  And if they answer the phone and don’t like the message, callers can hang up.  It’s a machine.  You can’t hurt its feelings.

The real story about database management and technology is not that the Conservatives are using it but that the governing Liberals squandered it. Coming out of their leadership race of four years ago, the Liberals had the best data advantage ever held by a political party in the province. 


They squandered it.

They didn’t use it for fund-raising.

The didn’t use it to recruit.

They didn’t use it to elicit feedback on their performance.

The Liberals went from being the data leaders in the province to a party that has completely ignored research and data, facts and information about political views and about policy.

That is why they are scrambling to win a majority government after only four years in office and despite making some significant changes to the way government works.  They have done plenty to deserve a second run, but you’d never know it from the current campaign. That’s on the people currently running things just like the NDP or Conservative faults and failings are purely on the people running those parties.  

We need to change a few things about elections in this province.  The most urgent need is to change how little people know about the system.  Public ignorance is a scourge.  People cannot make good decisions about how to make things better if they know nothing of how things run now.

The second thing we need to do is make sure that the players do not set the rules for everyone. Since 2003, every single change to elections has produced an unmitigated mess. One of them went to court and the courts found that the way special ballots ran was a violation of the constitution. It denied fundamental rights.  Special ballots aren’t the only feature of our elections system that violate basic rights or that disadvantage individuals in favour of groups.  The lesson is that if we let the players set the rules, they will rig the game for themselves.

And the third thing we must do is just get started on reform.  It is overdue by decades.