The tone of this last provincial election was simply horrific. Serious discussion of issues and policy was completely lost as every party engaged in a shrill fear and smear campaign where demonizing their opponents appeared to be much more important than highlighting what they perceive as their own merits. I admit, I jumped into the noise and hysteria in the twitter realm for awhile and yes I was as nasty as any on there. Still, even I who likes a degree of rough and tumble debate lost all appetite for the vulgar scroll of attacks online and backed off on the twitter scroll of insanity hashtagged #abvote. Only the NDP and their supporters tended to stay clear of the fray as they stuck to targeting their concentrated union support and indeed won all the seats they could in Alberta.
We now have four years to dwell on how to avoid having such a nasty election campaign again if avoidance or at least mitigation is even possible after a performance like this. I hope some new behaviour and ideas surface that can lead to the retention of some degree of rationallity in future elections. I look forward to those discussions.
Right now I still want to look at some simple and smaller things such as the visual pollution created by public campaign sign placement that I discussed in my last posting. What I want to touch on now is automated dialing which has really become prolific in politics this last few years (ht to Jeremy Nixon for bringing it up). While not earth shattering issues, the autodials and signs added to the buildup of white noise that led to many people simply shutting out the election altogether rather than dwelling on ideas and choices as they should have been able to do.
Technology has radically changed autodialing in the last ten years. I remember us setting up an autodialer unit in the old Wildrose office years ago. It was great. We only needed to tie up three lines in order to dial out a blistering 180 calls per hour. In only two days we could get a message out to our whole membership for only a couple hundred dollars in long-distance fees. It was a great tool for getting out information to a reasonably small number of people in relatively short time at a decent cost. Compared to mailouts this was a huge advancement for us in member communication. We never really abused it as it was still awkward and expensive to do large dials so it was only used at need. That all changed quickly with the advent of web based voip-style autodial technology.
In a few short years the technology developed to the point where for a couple hundred bucks and with 1/2 hour online setting up an individual could send out a phone blast to tens of thousands of numbers simultaniously. Polls can be set up and run through these systems quickly, easily and inexpensively. Even worse, it has become very easy to do these sorts of calls anonymously which has led to apparent abuses both federally and provincially.
For anybody who has their number on the electors list it was an irritating election as our phones were simply barraged by calls from all parties and some unidentified groups. Campaigns with limited budgets found it hard to resist large broadcasts for small costs as was demonstrated by my local Liberal candidate who hit my phone a couple times on election day with what was clearly an untargeted (and ineffective) phone blast.
The campaign that I worked on along with many others anticipated the pushback that autodialing abuse was causing and we utilized only live callers through volunteers and a paid live-dial service. Still, harried and tired voters while more appreciative of having a live voice call them were still tired of being contacted and it strongly reduced the efficacy of our GOTV campaigns. People stopped answering all calls from numbers that they didn’t recognize and responded with exhaustion and sometimes outright hostility to the volunteers making the calls. People had long stopped distinguishing between the parties when it came to the phone calls and simply lashed out at whoever called them next whether live or not. It didn’t matter if we used a live volunteer calling when the voters phone had been hammered by 8 autodials in the 24 hours prior to our live-dial. That voter was sick of it.
Again I am not much on instituting more regulation but I think that the degree of abuse we have seen in autodialing calls for at least some examination of the issue. Perhaps allowing autodialing to people who have opted in or are already members of an organization is the best way to do it. Parties and groups simply will have to market to encourage people to opt in through doorknocking and other conventional forms of marketting. Stronger controls would also help in defending against unprincipled false autodials as we saw in the last provincial election.
Banning or regulating are the options before us with public space signs and autodials. I think with open discussion and reasonable legislation we can take care of both of these annoying marketing techniques that have a very limited impact anyway. As long as rules are equally applied, no party would be disadvantaged.
In an indealistic world, people should look forward to elections as they will see the discussion of ideas and options leading up to their casting a ballot in choice of their preferred candidate. In the realistic world, people are increasingly disconnecting as the campaign simply turns into unbearable noise and even if they still choose to cast a ballot they likely have not been exposed to good policy discussion.
Regulating/ending use of autodialers and public space campaign signs would not lead to a massive shift towards voter engagement or a sudden trend of civility among parties. Ending the abuse of those marketing tools would be steps in the right direction though.