In Canada, Is Tweeting Election Results Illegal?

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Robert Siegel talks to Robert MacDermid, political science professor at York University in Toronto. He was an expert witness for the prosecution of blogger Paul Bryan for posting election results before polls closed in the 2000 election.


Canada has six time zones, the four that the continental U.S. has, plus two farther east: Newfoundland Time and Atlantic Time. So, national elections in Canada pose a problem for folks in, say, British Columbia that is familiar to their southern neighbors in Washington State. While the polls are still open out west, votes are already tallied in the east.

The problem, at least according to some people, is that the eagerness to vote in British Columbia is greatly reduced if you already know that your party has gotten its clock cleaned somewhere between Halifax and Toronto.

That problem is taken seriously enough up north that there's an old law on the books about broadcasting election results. And with an election coming up on May 2nd, the question is: Can the old law reasonably be applied to new media?

Joining us is Robert MacDermid, professor of political science at York University in Toronto. And, Professor MacDermid, first, the Canadian law in question dates from 1938, I gather. What does it actually say?

Professor ROBERT MACDERMID (Political Science, York University): Well, I'll read you what it says. It's very short. It says: No person shall transmit the result or purported result of the vote in an electoral district to the public in another electoral district before the close of all of the polling stations in that other electoral district.

SIEGEL: And this applies to broadcasters? Does it apply to citizens who could make a long-distance phone call to some uncle out in British Columbia?

Prof. MACDERMID: Yeah, I mean - I think, throughout the years, what's been recognized is that the law applies to broadcasters. And broadcasters almost universally have followed it. But there hasn't really been an attempt to stop people phoning, no.

SIEGEL: Well, let's flash forward now to the media landscape of 2011 - email, blogs, Facebook, Twitter. It's against the law to tweet the results of a parliamentary election race in, say, Montreal or Toronto, because it could be received somewhere farther west?

Prof. MACDERMID: Well, you know, I don't know whether they would actually try to enforce it against a tweet. But, you know, we'll see. You know, I'd be surprised if they did. And, you know, so long as it's not then taken and put on into the broadcast media, I think is really the issue.

Will a radio station pick it up and then transmit it on the West Coast, or the television and so on? I think that's when they would prosecute. Now, not all the voters on the West Coast are going to be following tweets about the results on the East Coast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MACDERMID: But the level of curiosity would be extraordinary.

SIEGEL: But there have been a couple of fines issued in the not-too-distant past for spreading election information.

Prof. MACDERMID: That's right. There was the one case that came out of the 2000 election, where somebody put the results on a website in the United States. And then it was available to Canadians on the West Coast. And he was prosecuted. The case went through three or four levels in appeals, finally ended up at the Supreme Court. The justices were split, it was five-four; four against the law. So the law was upheld and continues to be there.

SIEGEL: Well, as you keep your eye on this problem, is there any particular, say, website that you'll be looking at on Election Day on May 2nd in Canada?

Prof. MACDERMID: Well, unfortunately I'm not an enforcer or prosecutor...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MACDERMID: ...for Elections Canada. Will they be enforcing it? I doubt it.

SIEGEL: There's a real opening here for, you know, some Seattle television station come May 2nd to be the pirate TV station leaking election results to Canadians in the far West.

Prof. MACDERMID: I wish Americans were that interested in us.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. MACDERMID: There is actually another section of the act, which prohibits somebody in Canada from conspiring with an American U.S. network to do that. So, you better hope that if the Seattle pirate station does do it, they don't do it at the urging of someone in Canada, because the person in Canada could then be prosecuted.

SIEGEL: Well, Professor MacDermid, thank you very much for talking with us about it.

Prof. MACDERMID: Oh, you're very welcome.

SIEGEL: That's Robert MacDermid, professor of political science at York University in Toronto.

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