We need exit polling for Canadian elections

On October 21st, Justin Trudeau was reduced to minority government status with stronger Conservative opposition forming dominant regional representation in the west and a resurgent Bloc Quebecois spoiling the night for federalist parties in Quebec. Yet, despite this black eye for Trudeau, much of the focus has been on Andrew Scheer’s campaign. Why did he come up short? What held him back? Why could this new opposition leader not do something unprecedented in Canadian history and unseat a one-term majority Prime Minister on his first outing?

Was it Mr. Scheer’s social conservatism? Was it the well-worn Liberal narrative in Ontario that Doug Ford’s “cuts” would be a template for a federal Conservative government? Was it climate change? Many theories abound among jaw-wagging pundits angling for clicks and among Liberals looking to introduce discord into the Conservative party. But why is there such a cottage industry of political know-it-alls offering up theories?

We lack useful data when it comes to why people vote the way they do in Canadian elections.

American context

In the United States, exit polls are conducted the day of the election as voters leave the polls. They are asked who they voted for and why they voted as they did. Their demographics, districts, and psychographics are jotted down and they are asked the kind of questions we are only speculating about in Canada today.

American pundits and commentators are able to appreciate why women in Wisconsin rejected one candidate, while college educated men in Colorado supported another. Depending on the depth of the survey, illuminating results can be derived that can have a real impact on representation and outreach.

So, why don’t we do exit polling in Canadian elections?

It mostly comes down to cost. Pollsters typically take 1000 person samples for their polls on the best of days. This sample is distributed across the country. A person’s reasons for voting Liberal may differ significantly in one part of the country and among one demographic than it may among others in another part of the country. These divisions raise the margin of error among an already small sample. Nik Nanos has an alternative approach where he queries a rolling sample of a few hundred people per day and then pools the result.

Pollsters are already preoccupied with making the best showing as confirmed by the actual electoral result. Exit polls, by contrast, do not have a comparative check on accuracy and therefore don’t award reputational kudos.

Yet, this missing data creates a huge blindspot and hurts our ability to understand the result. Currently, we add up the seats and speculate from there.

Better understanding leads to better representation

Furthermore, it is important to appreciate late-breaking issues that were determining factors in why electors cast their ballot. Vote-switching is also a phenomenon not well-quantified in Canada one that becomes more and more important as Canadians vote strategically in a fractured multi-party system that elects a candidate under first-past-the-post.

Of course, it is illegal to broadcast or disseminate an election survey during the blackout period defined by Canada’s elections regulator. Most importantly, this includes election day itself.

No person shall cause to be transmitted to the public, in an electoral district on polling day before the close of all of the polling stations in that electoral district, the results of an election survey that have not previously been transmitted to the public. 

Canada Elections Act

However, polling can be conducted with the results held until the polls close. Canadian elections and exit polling – it’s long overdue.

So, what halted Andrew Scheer’s victory in Ontario? In Quebec? For that matter, why did Singh lose his caucus in Quebec? Why did Trudeau lose his majority? Without exit polling, we are left to rely on speculation and hot air from pundits.

Liberals use CBSA for translation services

Ottawa has been scandal-prone of late in its inappropriate use of taxpayer dollars. Here we have a story about the inappropriate use of government resources for partisan activity. Such abuse has come to light after documents were released under Access to Information. They describe a request from an official with the Vanier Liberal Electoral District Association for translation to Hélène-Louise Gauthier, the Director of HQ Accommodations for the Infrastructure and Environmental Operations Directorate for the Canadian Border Services Agency.

This request from the Liberal Party was fulfilled using a Government of Canada email address. It is unknown if this was done on government time despite government resources being used to respond to the request. The translated document was the agenda for the 2013 Liberal Ottawa-Vanier AGM.

Of course, it is inappropriate for government officials to be using government resources to do partisan work. I reached out to the Minister of Public Safety for comment. The Minister’s Office verified the documents and Julie Carmichael, the Vic Toews’s director of communications replied,

“We were shocked to learn that senior Liberal MP Mauril Belanger utilized a backroom Liberal operative to do partisan work at taxpayers expense. The CBSA is looking into this blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars. We call on Justin Trudeau to immediately discipline Mauril Belanger for this inappropriate behaviour and come clean to Canadians about any other backroom operatives using taxpayer dollars.”

A media firestorm broke out after it was revealed that the Prime Minister’s Office used taxpayers resources to make a political attack against the leader of Canada’s third party in Parliament, Justin Trudeau. Revealed via the Barrie Examiner, the attack was political but wasn’t done on behalf of a political organization outside of government. However in this CBSA example, taxpayer dollars were used directly to benefit the administrative goals of a partisan organization.

Bob Rae is out

And good for him. Today, the interim leader of the Liberal Party, the past leadership candidate for the same, and the former NDP Premier of Ontario announced that he won’t be seeking to make his current job permanent. No, Rae will not run to be leader of the Liberal Party and carry the Grits into the next election. In the end, he kept his word that he would not run, despite the fact that the party executive was ready to bend space and time in order to allow it.

Why did he dance and skate, as he remarked, through so many scrums and interviews on his leadership intentions? Perhaps Rae recognized that despite its legacy status, Parliament’s third-place party had an uphill battle when it came to generating news coverage for its activities and positions taken in the House of Commons. If Rae were perceived to be a “lame duck” leader with no clout, the press would have just passed over him knowing that any of his pronouncements were temporary at best or lacked legitimacy at worst. By leading everyone on until now, it is certain that he was able to shine a brighter spotlight on his party.

It won’t surprise you to hear that we at the National Citizens Coalition think that Rae made the right decision. While we do wish him well in his future life, if Rae were to become Prime Minister, it would have been a nightmare scenario. During a recession in Ontario, Rae worsened the province’s standing rather than improved it. The NDP has always feared Rae because of his cross-partisanship and ability to draw socialists and centrists together. A Rae leadership would have done more to unite the parties of the left. Even this week, Rae and Mulcair were singing from the same songbook when it came to bailing out Spanish banks and the Eurozone with Canadian cash. Throwing good money after bad is a hallmark of the worst in fiscal management. As Europe seeks to discredit capitalism by rescuing bad investments, flattening risk, increasing sovereign debt while thumbing their nose to calls for spending restraint on entitlements, an amalgamated Canadian left within striking distance of power would only embolden and encourage these instincts at home squandering our hard-won advantage.

But Rae as Prime Minister, or now that he’s out, any Liberal for that matter? That is indeed projecting far into the hypothetical future. Indeed, the Liberals haven’t even found their foothold yet to rebuild their party to challenge the NDP for opposition status. But yet, that is the next task that they face. Rae’s exit will allow an open and fresh leadership race that won’t likely be haunted by any phantoms from generations-past. Granted, Justin Trudeau’s name carries a lot of baggage west of Ontario (and in Quebec) but with Rae out, we will likely see full generational change in the lineup of Liberal contenders.

This will excite some Liberal partisans because the Liberal Party will be a blank slate, without foundational policy to anchor it in any way or another. This will also be to the benefit of other parties that will easily define the Liberal Party for their purposes as well.