All the news you need to cast a vote

This just in from outer space. The government is censoring reporting of the election but doing it badly. OK, it's not from outer space. It's from Elections Canada, who on Sept. 9 e-mailed the press to remind us that the law imposes strict requirements, if we report on polls during an election, about what information we must divulge.

State agents pry from us such things as "how many persons were contacted" and "the survey's margin of error."

This law is at once foolish and malignant, two qualities I personally try to avoid even in isolation let alone in combination.

As an attempt to prevent objectionable speech during an election this weird little restriction on what we can say (or, more exactly, what we cannot not say) is entirely feeble. We print journalists remain free to speculate as to what various parties' campaign strategies are and whether they're working without having to justify our claims in any way to the meddlers at Elections Canada. We can cite "experts" without having to explain our choice of which experts we call. We can even declare that nobody understands how a given Tory policy would work but that it's "crafty politics" without having to put any evidence on the table. But cite a poll and we must include statistical details or offend the truth police.

Actually the law on poll reporting is such ineffective censorship that it only says the first outlet to report it must provide all this tedious detail. Thus, for example, the Citizen could report Wednesday an Ipsos Reid poll on Canadians' diverse electoral concerns without pestering you with how many people in northeastern Saskatchewan with blue garage doors were consulted on the economy versus health care as their main concern. Which is fine by me and I expect by you as well so the government should just buzz off.

On the whole, I'm not much interested in polls and wish everyone spent more time discussing issues (like, say, censorship). Sometimes polls are slanted for partisan purposes, and other times they're flawed because normal people either won't talk to pollsters or are not entirely frank with them. On the other hand, pollsters rely for their reputation, and thus their income, on the accuracy of their results so they try hard to avoid such pitfalls. Anyway, how much information journalists provide about polls and how often we report on them should be between us, the newspaper, and you, our readers. It is not properly the business of people to whom these poll numbers might spell electoral doom. And are those in government so thoroughly on top of their more important tasks that they have time to spare on this sort of stuff?

OK, the only practical effect of this rule is to make us occasionally waste ink and paper including statistical caveats of minimal interest. Mathematicians don't need them, whereas to the average reader a margin of error plus some phrase like "19 times out of 20" is just a fancy way of saying "unless it's not" which they already knew. But the Canada Elections Act that lies behind this warning from Elections Canada was written by incumbent politicians to prevent us from doing something they fear might get them voted out. And even if statistically imprecise reporting of polls is unlikely to have that effect, inept censorship remains censorship and sets a very bad precedent. Of which this warning is not the only example.

Radio stations, for instance, are legally obliged to provide "equitable" political coverage. Which is just a soothing name for the government hovering over their reporting on the government to make sure it's not left to citizens to decide what's fair. Our election laws also silence third parties during elections. And if the state can dictate coverage to radio stations and citizens, why not newspapers? Why just harry us over fiddly details of poll reporting when they could prosecute us for unfair coverage of their own splendid selves?

I'll tell you. It's because you the voter, not they the incumbent politicians, should decide whether we the press are giving you the information you need to cast an informed vote. Always.

Instead, if I say Stéphane Dion is a Martian, the law lets you make up your own mind about the reliability of the claim. But if I tell you 68 per cent of Martians support the Liberal leader, I'm obliged to disclose how many little green men I talked to with how large a margin of error, lest you be hoodwinked into some harmful voting behaviour impossible to specify. It may sound silly rather than toxic. But once the censorship principle is conceded, it's hard to fight back if the application gets more obnoxious.

Stupid, yet unfair. How strangely Earthlings conduct public affairs.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]