The First Law of Robotics revisited…


I wrote this in early 2012 and never published it. After reading today’s story by John Ivison in the National Post today, I thought I’d share. I’m not politically active in a partisan context now, but I think these comments are still relevant. I was deeply concerned at the time that the so called “Robocall scandal” would have a deleterious effect on our elections. Fortunately, the scandal has been identified as what it is…not a broad based conspiracy but more likely the isolated poor judgement of a couple of over zealous individuals.

The First Law of Robotics

The First Law of Robotics may need to be reaffirmed. Isaac Asimov introduced the three laws in his 1942 short story collection I Robot. The first law essentially said a robot may do no harm to a human. According to the opposition, robotic phone calls may serve to ignite a democratic apocalypse in Canada, arguably one of the world’s most transparent and effective electoral democracies.

Only Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden, Singapore and Finland are seen as more squeaky clean in a global rating of corruption perception. I suspect that following the recent opposition member’s hyperbole about the “robocall” scandal in the House of Commons our ranking may take a bit of a hit.

The threat from the robocall scandal is very real. It may, however, not be for the reasons being put forward by Liberal leader Bob Rae and the NDP’s loony attack squirrel, Pat Martin. The threat may lie not in some perceived subversion of the democratic process, but in the real and serious erosion of voter engagement.

The notion of some twisted political operative dreaming up a scheme to deliver automated phone calls directing people to alternate voting locations is repugnant to anyone who believes in our democratic system. Everyone has been clear that when whoever did this to Guelph is found, they should be dealt with to the full extent of the law. This is not just a firing offense, it is a serious crime that attacks the very foundation of one of our most cherished rights as a citizen. It is inexcusable. It’s wrong. It’s criminal.

We should not, however, confuse or automatically lump this incident together with the 31,000 other complaints being reported by Elections Canada. While the stories are related, I suspect the origins are very different.

Elections are enormous and very complex organizational efforts. Political parties begin planning for the next election hours after the result of the previous one is finalized. Postmortems are held, efforts are dissected and evaluated, strategies are born for the planning of the next writ period. Much of that effort is never seen by the broader public. Tens of thousands of volunteers are recruited and trained, riding associations organize, fundraisers do their job and committees search for candidates.

In recent years, campaigns have become technologically sophisticated. It’s the result of fewer bodies. Fewer and fewer people have chosen to join political parties. The advent of more transparent and accountable government checks and balances have eliminated what used to be a key reason for getting involved, partisan advantage. There is no denying party activists do continue to get appointments but patronage is under much more scrutiny and rightly so. No longer does the one partisan paving crew or ad agency get all the work after a change of government. Procurements, appointments and contracts are more often merit based, transparent and until tighter controls. This is a good thing.

In days gone past however, patronage was accepted as a matter of course and it also provided a reliable source of cash and human resources for the parties. In recent years legislation has been passed to reduce or eliminate these practices. Checks and balances have been placed on the influence of corporations, unions or wealthy individuals through contributions to political parties. No one would argue the motivation for these moves. It is good for democracy. It has, however, had some unintended consequences.

Beyond the altruistic notions of working for a better country or contributing to public service, there are few direct advantages to volunteering on a political campaign. For some there may be the odd staff job, perhaps an appointment to a government board or commission, but most people I’ve met and the vast majority of volunteers who work on campaigns do it because they believe in the candidate or the party. Of course there are those who do it because they loathe the government in power. The decline in voter turnout is often reported but disengagement in the political process not only manifests itself at the polls. It’s a very real problem for many local riding associations trying to run election campaigns.

Veteran’s of the political wars of years past get misty-eyed talking of the days of dozens of poll captains and fully staffed Election days. It was not uncommon to see the big parties turn out a couple of hundred workers during a campaign. They worked canvassing houses, talking to nieghbours, pounding in signs, holding socials and reviewing lists of dyed-in-the-wool Tories or Liberals. They knew who were voting for their candidate and they knew how to get them to the polls on election day.

Today, even federal campaigns may run with just a handful of volunteers. With the decline in the number of workers, voter contact has been an enormous challenge for all parties. As it has become more challenging, all parties have turned to phone technology, including autodialers (the notorious robocalls), volunteer-staffed predictive dialers phone banks and paid call centres to bridge the human resource gap in contacting voters.

The essence of a local elections campaign has little or nothing to do with the national campaign you watch in the news. The local campaign has a simple job. Find out who may vote for you, convince them to do so and get them to the polls.

The modern voter contact piece of a campaign is multifaceted. It now includes door-to-door canvassing, web based and social media, a well executed advertising and earned media campaign, town hall meetings and other public events. Telephone voter contact has become extremely important. A campaign can directly contact a lot more people on the telephone than they can tromping up driveways, skipping across lawns. Hoping they read a nifty brochure or hear a radio ad is one thing. Asking who they are supporting is another. Phone campaigns have another advantage. Data about voting preferences and levels of support can be entered immediately into lists and efficiently organized. It’s a very powerful tool. Everybody does it.

These databases are generated by volunteers during campaigns and provides an enormous body of intelligence about voters intentions. It is constantly being managed and improved between elections to provide the cleanest, most accurate voter identification to be used when an election rolls around. It has to be constantly updated for people who move, die, marry or change their voting intention. These relationships are maintained and nurtured to ensure the party can count on that vote in the next election. It’s not a stretch to believe if someone is donating money, they’ll vote for the party too.

During elections, their are only two finite resources. Time and money. No campaign wants to waste either. The clock is always ticking and Elections Canada puts a ceiling on and scrutinizes what every campaign spends. Any campaign manager worth their salt will put every available second and every available dollar into the three priorities of an election. Identifying voters who may vote for you, convincing them to do so and getting them to the polls. It is why, to me, this “robocall” scandal makes so little sense. It seems a complete waste of time and money.

I first heard the term “voter suppression” while talking to Republican activists in Virginia 10 years ago. I was attending a session to get a better understanding of effective political direct mail campaigns. These are the pieces that land in your mailbox every election that are quickly tossed in the bin. The idea of a voter suppression piece is to simply to create a negative impression of ones opponent, so their supporters won’t feel compelled to take the time a go vote for them.
Effective voter suppression takes an enormous amount of effort and is a very sophisticated process. It is done over an extended period and requires a deep understanding of the behaviour of a voting group. If this robocall incident was an example of “voter suppression”, it is the most ham-fisted, ill conceived and poorly executed version of all time.

I remember seeing what the opposition are describing as “voter suppression” highlighted in an HBO series called Brotherhood some years ago. It portrayed a fictitious municipal election in Boston and in the typical Tammany Hall style neighbourhood Get Out the Vote effort, local yokels had their arms twisted (or worse) to vote, were paid cash to show up at the polls to vote twice, voter registration lists were altered to keep people from voting and people were called and told the polls had moved. It was pretty entertaining fiction. It doesn’t have anything to do with how we run our elections in Canada.

We have arguably the most transparent, well organized, accountable election process in the world. We run around teaching people all over the globe how to conduct elections. There is a reason. We’re really, really good at it. To think for a moment that a widespread conspiracy of “vote suppression” would ever be executed, let alone even conceived, by any of the major political parties in the country defies all logic. Regardless of your opinion of Stephen Harper’s soul.

I do not dispute the idea some knucklehead under the nom de plume of “Pierre Poutine” ordering up his or her malevolent auto dial into Guelph as being entirely plausible. It would be cheap, easy and as difficult to trace as has been proven. Anyone could do it. The skullduggery is compelling in theory, but the likelihood it would have any impact on an election is pretty slim. Add to this, many of the reports in being produced about the ridings these irregularities were being reported, and the notion that this would have any impact becomes even more remote.

A broader “voter-suppression” campaign using volunteer predictive dialer phone-banks or call centres is almost, and I stress almost, impossible to imagine. Might some campaign hire a company to do some Election day voter contact and the company then make a mess of it by providing lousy information or use poorly compiled phone lists to make calls. Maybe.

To suggest that any party…Liberal, Conservative, NDP, Green or Marxist-Leninist would risk getting caught trying to hoodwink voters on Election day using telephone voter contact in any kind of predetermined coordinated fashion is patently ridiculous.

The broad “voter suppression’ campaign the opposition is imagining would be extremely easy to detect. The variables are off the scale. It’s more than likely a whistle-blower, partisan or not, would report the scheme. As someone who has managed campaigns and understands the intense scrutiny and accountability election campaigns are subject to in this country, I cannot imagine even the most malevolent partisan operative of any party justifying the risk benefit ratio. You can call the senior political operatives in this country many things but stupid is not one of them.

Why would a call-centre company risk their entire business by entertaining such an activity? Why would an MP risk the embarrassment of having an election result overturned, especially in the light of the scrutiny of an elections oversight body with unlimited resources to investigate complaints.

What is the risk? Fines, jail, humiliation, the reputation of not only a government but the entire electoral process of the country.

What is the reward? Maybe a couple of hundred indeterminate votes not being cast. In most ridings being described, barely enough to even affect even the percentage of the plurality.

It makes pretty good political theater, but I’m sure at the end of the day, Elections Canada will see the vast majority of the 31,000 complaints they are receiving are the result of people irritated by perfectly legitimate phone bank contact. I’m sure there will be incidents of people working in phone banks who have made errors and have given people bad information. It happens, but most of the time, it hurts the party making the calls because they are calling their own supporters.

There are two very troubling questions about this story. If there were so many serious breaches during the elections, why were these irregularities not identified earlier and why did they not hold more importance in the Elections Canada report? The second has to do with the coverage of this story. Why is the Guelph “robocall” incident being linked so quickly to other call centre contact activities. The two are distinctly different processes, yet in a rush to develop a narrative, commentators and authors have been quick to call into question one of the most important functions of our democracy under the umbrella of a sexy congenial truth.

My worry is, in an effort to push this ball down the road for the maximum political effect, both the NDP and the Liberals have been guilty of deliberately confusing the issues and connecting dots that stretch credulity to its breaking point.

The Conservatives haven’t done themselves any favours by trying to pin the calls on the Liberals either. Everybody does it and everybody makes mistakes.

The unfortunate side effect of all of this is all parties, by trying to point fingers of blame across the aisles, may be cutting away the roots of their own sustenance. This will impact all parties in their efforts to raise money and in their voter contact efforts in the next election. Perhaps, and I suspect at most, this entire exercise will result in much more regulations and constraints placed on call centres and autodialers during election campaigns.

I’m sure the public however, will be delighted.

Just as a footnote, recently I received an automated call from Bob Rae and the Liberal Party of Canada asking me to participate in a town hall. Actually there were two calls, one a week or so prior and the other a day or two ahead of the event. It told me as a strong supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada, I would be interested in sharing my views and listening to this engaging cross-Canada telephone town hall. I have never been a supporter of the Liberal Party of Canada. As a matter of fact, I was listening to the call while looking at the expired Conservative Party membership card pinned on my bulletin board. I laughed a bit, understood the mistake, and got on with my life.

Let’s hope Canadians who can make their own informed choices will see this whole thing for what it is. We don’t need any more reasons to feel cynical about casting a vote.


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