All I want is a list of numbers

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.

8 thoughts on “All I want is a list of numbers

  1. Guillaume Theoret

    So basically, in the old days, media outlets would invest in getting accurate and timely results, whereas now they just whine that the government isn’t doing their jobs for them quickly enough?

    Reply
    1. Jim J.

      Every media outlet wants to be first in reporting the results, so they can attempt to increase (or at least justify) their advertising revenue from their customers (for the purposes of this, customers ? subscribers).

      The problem is, it’s extremely easy to be first, and it’s also fairly easy to be accurate. It’s only when they try to attempt both simultaneously, that they run into trouble. But the we-must-be-first-at-all-costs! attitude persists.

      And, as you so correctly point out, they want to rely almost entirely on some government entity posting numbers to a Web site in order to obtain their data, and then complain when the data turns out to be (a) not timely; (b) not accurate, or (c) neither timely nor accurate.

      What the hell good is it if I can read incorrect numbers on a media outlet’s Web site? I’d rather wake up in the morning and read accurate numbers in an actual newspaper, than read inaccurate numbers on a newspaper’s Web site before I go to bed.

      …and they say the business model is broken. Well, no wonder.

      Reply
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  3. Anthony-Norman Onymous

    The City failed big time.

    I was an “aide PRIMO” on election day (the guy who says hello to voters and sends them to their proper poll), but I have worked all positions in all levels of elections, so I know a bit the mechanics.

    First of all, many election workers are the most wretched dregs humanity can conjure; the first time I was working poll clerk, it was for a deputy returning officer who was illiterate. She just could not count, which happens to be handy when you are responsible for counting votes. Those people are usually what we call in french “B.S.”: people on welfare because they are utterly incapable of getting a job (any job) and doing it.

    In the voting center I was working, we consistently had trouble with one poll throughout the day. While any other poll had at most 3 people waiting, this one seldom had less than 10 people waiting. The replacement poll clerk was late (but that’s understandable as the intended clerk did not show up). The first thing he said was “boys are you guys disorganized” (not entirely untrue, but given his subsequent performance, totally off the bat). He would routinely disappear to phone, even when some electors were there (both a no-no and a gross blatant violation of the law). He would then fail to fill the proper paperwork required throughout the day, and always displayed some attitude.

    Despite our repeated calls to have him replaced, we had to endure with him as no replacement was ever given to us.

    Then the polls closed, the first ballots that had to be counted were the city mayor ballots; this should not have taken more than 40-45 minutes. Well, 2 hours later, that poll still had not given that result. Naturally, we all congregated around them to see what was wrong and started to get some more attitude from the clerk who had driven the DRO (which was another illiterate dreg) to tears.

    We had to call the cops to have the clerk forcibly removed from the premises; I hope the charges for disorderly conduct will stick…

    That day, I had started work at 7:30 in the morning, picking up the ballot boxes along with the primo. When we got back to the district office, it was well beyond midnight, and we were not out of here before one thirty in the morning.

    Reply
    1. James Lawlor

      I agree with Anthony that some of the poll clerks should not be there. I supervised the ballot counting as a representative of one of the parties at a NDG polling location.
      One of the two people at the poll was a unilingual anglophone. That should not normally be a problem except that all the instructions that the poll workers get is in French. She was completely lost! Both of the poll clerks were very confused by all the forms, envelopes, and even envelopes-in-envelopes that needed to be filled in and sealed.

      Naturally our poll was the slowest to count the votes. Having said that, I was still able to leave at 10:30. I rushed home to find out that practically no results were reported for the city councilors. It seemed to me that the only councilor positions that were tabulated on the web site were the colistières of the party leaders.

      Reply
  4. Jean Naimard

    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.

    More than 25 years working in computers made me extremely suspicious of electronic voting. There is no way I could trust a process where the works are not entirely transparent and obvious to anyone.
    Paper ballots are simple, and easy. Children can use the methodology, and anybody can watch the process to insure there is no fiddling; in fact, candidates can post representatives at each poll to make sure procedures are properly followed.
    Not so with a computerized black box. You push buttons (or insert a mark-sense card), and some magic rocket-surgery happens and you get instant results. How do you know the machine has not been programmed with a final outcome right from the onset?
    The various scandals involving voting machines in the US* have persuaded the Directeur Général des Élections to stop the electronic voting madness for this election.
    * The latest was when a company inadvertently disclosed the inner workings of the programs, it was found that it violated guidelines as the program that actually did the work was not only not the one the machine was approved for, but could have been easily planted from outside — a little bit like a computer virus (not strictly, here "virus" is an analogy).

    Reply

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