Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Time to take away the robotoys

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"The scandal's not what's illegal, the scandal's what's legal." -- Michael Kinsley.

One of the puzzles surrounding Robocon has been the seeming randomness of the reported calls. Suppose Conservatives of some description were behind it. Ridings were targeted that the Conservatives were sure to win; others the party badly wanted to win were not targeted at all. Ridings where attempts to suppress the vote of opposition parties have been reported do not seem to have experienced lower turnout on the whole -- although new research shows opposition-voting polling stations saw larger drops in turnout in those ridings than elsewhere.

But notice how I've slipped a couple of assumptions past you. No, not the "suppose the Conservatives did it" one: Rather, they concern the practice of robocalling itself, which as every party hastens to point out, is not illegal or unethical. I took for granted, first, that of course such efforts would be focused on ridings that were "in play," i.e. where there was a chance of the outcome being affected one way or the other; and second, that of course the calls, whether live or automated, would focus on voters who supported one party or another, because of course the parties would have that sort of information.

We have come to believe such mass phone operations, involving literally millions of calls -- legal, ethical and strategic as they may be -- are perfectly normal, something we should take for granted. But in fact it's all highly abnormal: the phoning, the targeting, the voter identification, all of it, and if you really want to explore the roots of Robocon, that's where you have to dig. Partisanship might have been the motive in this affair, and the technology of robocalling might have been the means, but the opportunity was provided by the perfectly legal micro-targeting tactics all parties employ.

You're perhaps familiar with the phenomenon by which the electorate is sliced and diced into ever more narrowly defined demographic groups, composites of age, gender, race, class, marital status, location, and so on, with cutesy names like "Zoe" or "Doug" assigned to represent them. What you might not be aware of is how information on individual voters -- yes, you -- is increasingly being compiled and collated into personal profiles, far beyond your name and phone number. Robocalls aren't simply another medium of broadcasting; they're precisely targeted narrowcasts. And the target is you.

The party calling knows who you are, which party you support and what sorts of issues people like you are concerned about, and in the intimacy of that phone call, can tell you exactly what you want to hear, without concern for how the same message might resonate with other voters. What the mass media of the 20th century largely took away from the parties -- the ability to say one thing to one group of voters and another, sometimes contradictory thing to another -- the micro-media of the 21st century have restored.

As I say, we've all grown used to this, conditioned to think of it as part of the political game. Reporters write admiring profiles of the strategists behind the campaigns, who modestly boast of their prowess at "moving the numbers." Voters are invariably described in such logistical terms, as if we were so many packages to be delivered.

I get why the parties think this way. What I don't get is why the rest of us should: why we should consent to being treated in this condescending, manipulative way -- still less why we should help the parties do it. Yet the reality is this sort of campaigning could not be conducted without the collusion of the state, of the government that belongs to us. It is time it stopped.

The parties could not conduct these phone campaigns if Elections Canada did not make available to them its list of registered voters. It did not always do so. It should stop.

They could not do so, likewise, had they not arranged to exempt themselves from the "do-not-call" lists to which private telemarketers are subject. Neither could the parties maintain quite such sophisticated voter databases had they not also exempted themselves from the relevant privacy laws. Both of these privileges should be withdrawn.

For that matter, we might also take away, or at least curtail, the remaining tax credits for political donations and subsidies for expenses. Without them, parties would have less money to spend. There's no reason elections have to be as expensive as they are. As in the present example, money goes to activities that harm, not help, democracy.

Finally, we might also consider reform of the electoral system as a longer-term remedy. The extraordinary leverage in our present system -- a few swing votes one way or the other decide a riding, and a few swing ridings decide the election -- puts a great deal of temptation before people who are not particularly adept at resisting it. A system in which every vote is of equal weight -- hence the name, proportional representation -- offers fewer opportunities for gaming.

Through these and other reforms, we might begin to change the way the parties approach us, the voters: together, openly, and as citizens, rather than separately, covertly and as prey.

Andrew Coyne is a national

columnist for Postmedia News

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Gerald Flood, Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 14, 2012 A10

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