On election night, there was whining by journalists, both in my newsroom and in others, that results weren’t coming in fast enough.
In the old days, newspapers would have journalists at individual polling stations reporting vote tallies. They would mark the totals on a piece of paper, attach it to the leg of a carrier pigeon and give it orders to return to the newsroom. From there, a copy boy would take it and deliver it to a data clerk who would take care of compilation and calculations.
Or, at least, that’s how I imagine it used to be. Nevertheless, somehow people got results before the Internet.
Nowadays, unless a wire service like Canadian Press gets direct access to the data (which it can then reformat and electronically distribute to its members, as it does during federal elections), results tabulation consists of hundreds of journalists (and thousands of political junkies) constantly hitting refresh on the website of the director-general of elections, and whining that it’s so slow.
For the municipal elections, it was more complicated than that. This wasn’t one election run by a single chief electoral officer, but hundreds of elections run by individual municipalities under the supervision of the provincial municipal affairs department. The latter had a special website setup with results from all the municipal elections, but throughout election night (and even more than 24 hours later) many municipalities’ results were blank.
In Montreal, another website with results by the borough. But again, many were slow coming in. At the end of the night, results from CDN/NDG were in the single digits.
A handful of seemingly random small cities, including Beaconsfield, Brossard, Victoriaville and Rivière du Loup, reported their results on an entirely separate website.
It sounds silly, but in many cases reporters got results by phoning up the candidates or parties and asking them.
Reporters don’t report
The media weren’t much better than the government as far as reporting the results. During big federal and provincial elections, they fall on big national IT teams to create comprehensive websites with flashy results tables, or they just throw in a CP-supplied Flash program that does all their work for them.
In this election, they didn’t have either, so we saw a lot of hack jobs:
- Radio-Canada had results from all over Quebec, but limited itself to only the mayor’s races in small towns.
- CBC Montreal didn’t provide results outside of Montreal and Laval, and those results didn’t include any numbers whatsoever, only declaring a winner by highlighting the candidate.
- Cyberpresse had all its results on a single page, covering only the city of Montreal.
- Rue Frontenac had a Flash graphic with results of only the mayor and borough mayor races, and only in Montreal.
- Canoe had … uhh … this.
- Many, including my employer, simply pointed to the government-run websites directly, to get rid of the middleman.
If media outlets aren’t going to provide better information than the government, there’s little point in trying.
Isn’t this 2009? Isn’t this the future?
It wasn’t just the journalists and news junkies whining. The night after, as I was waiting for my cheeseburger to be grilled at the Belle Province across the street from work, one of the workers there compared this situation to an election in Greece where all the results came in quickly and accurately.
I pointed out that we had the future in 2005, but the optical-scan machines weren’t used this time, apparently because they caused problems.
This time, the counting went fine. It was the reporting of results to central authorities that was the problem. That clearly needs to be worked on over the next four years. Whether it’s manual or electronic reporting, as long as it works. And there should be a backup in case whatever system is setup fails.
Meanwhile, if the media’s only method of obtaining election results is to check the government website, they shouldn’t whine about it when it gets slow (or doesn’t show results) on election night. They do, after all, have a few days to report the official tallies.