Policing the polls

Steve Bartlett
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Local media keeping a keen eye on online voting

Paul Lane

Mount Pearl South MHA Paul Lane was looking for a way to vote more than once on an "IMPORTANT Cbc poll" and someone who received his BlackBerry message suggested clearing his Internet history and cookies and restarting the browser.

"Will give it a try. Thanks," replied Lane, who has repeated publicly that he doesn't know how to change his Internet browser settings so that he could vote more than once.

That BlackBerry exchange is typical of the type of PIN messages sent between Tories, political staff and supporters that The Telegram has been reporting on this week. The messages reveal that the Progressive Conservatives orchestrate the padding of online media polls and radio call-in shows.

The consensus among politicians and political-watchers is that all parties are probably doing it to a certain extent. The Telegram focused on the governing PCs after it received leaked BlackBerry messages detailing how the practice is conducted.

Is it possible to stop this political poll-goosing?

Not likely, according to people contacted for this story.

"Look, I think we just have to accept that these are the rules of engagement between the news sites that have these questions and the political parties," says Peter Gullage, acting managing editor for CBC news in the province.

"As long as there is an opportunity for them to see some advantage, they are going to try to take it."

Kelly Blidook, an associate professor of political science at Memorial University, doesn't expect things to change either.

"I don't honestly see that someone is going to back off unless there's some type of actual punishment for it," he says, allowing it's possible the Tories could be hurt by their practices the next time there is a "real poll" if party support dips.

Blidook doesn't think there's an easy fix, and suggests exposing "bad behaviour" and putting it on the public's radar might be the only option.

"I think that's kind of the best we can do," he says.

Kerry Hann, The Telegram's managing editor, also expects poll padding will continue, but he hopes the paper's coverage of the issue will at least curtail it.

"I think political parties will be more hesitant before they do something like this again," he says. "Will they continue to do it? Probably. But they probably need to regroup and come up with a different strategy and be more careful now as to the approach."

Hann is concerned about the manipulation to a point, but says The Telegram's polls are there to give the public an opportunity to express their opinions on certain topics.

Removing the informal survey from the website would be a knee-jerk reaction, he says, adding The Telegram is looking at making its polls tougher to manipulate.

Both he and Gullage were surprised at the level of planning and co-ordination that has been going into manipulating the daily online polls.

"That's a lot of effort for not much gain," Gullage says, pointing out the CBC doesn't call it a poll and it is quick to point out the surveys are not scientific.

He suggests the word "poll" is part of the problem.

Polls have a deliberate structure and are scientific, he explains, whereas the questions of the day posed by news websites are meant to take the pulse of what the public thinks about an issue or idea - some serious and some fun.

"It seems the politicians don't understand what they are about," Gullage says, adding he'll leave it up to the public to decide if what the politicians are doing is dishonest.

He also feels the polls provide entertainment for readers.

If politicians want "to enter that field with the public and try to manipulate it, it's up to them whether or not they can sleep at night, because it's not meant for them," he says.

Gullage notes the CBC polices its site and looks out for manipulation.

"If we see multiple answers coming from one IP address, we'll fix that," he says. "We can tell when somebody is trying to gain the system and we can get in front of it. We have a system in place, and I think that's what you discovered in the story."

The Telegram's Feb. 16 article on the topic quoted Lane as saying, "We are falling way behind on the CBC question. The computer is only allowing us to vote once. Obviously the opposition has found a way around this and we are also working on this."

Blidook also views online media polls as a source of entertainment. He goes as far as describing them as "purely entertainment."

"They're like watching hockey or they are like watching a comedy," he says. "Go ahead participate, look at the results, but know that they are meaningless in terms of reality. I wouldn't look at these and say, 'Look at how that party is doing or look at support for that policy.' It's not a proper sample, it's really like a joke or a hockey game."

Given how he views the surveys as entertainment, Blidook wishes people would stop considering media polls as solid information.

"Because they aren't, or at least they have no link to reality," he says. "They don't tell us something about how people feel."

The Telegram requested an interview on the Tory approach to polls and radio phone-in shows with Premier Kathy Dunderdale Wednesday.

Late Friday afternoon, her press secretary emailed to say the premier would not be doing an interview on this matter.

Neither Lane nor his caucus colleagues Steve Kent and Vaughn Granter would do interviews with The Telegram either - citing a reluctance to respond to a story based on information from an anonymous source - yet both Lane and Kent did interviews on the issue with CBC this week.

Dunderdale didn't express much political will to alter her caucus's practice during a mid-week media scrum in Corner Brook.

"Oh, please, there's no story here," she said. "Do we participate in polls? You betcha. Who in Newfoundland doesn't, whether it comes to 'Canadian Idol' or something that affects us?"

The premier noted that all parties try to influence daily polls and talk-radio shows to get their message out.

NDP Leader Lorraine Michael points out there is a difference between what her party does and what the Tories have been doing with the polls on news sites.

She says the New Democrats send out links to daily questions to party supporters and over social media, but there is no orchestrated effort telling people they must participate and how they must vote.

"We haven't got time to be doing that," she says.

Michael doesn't have a problem with political parties or MHAs trying to gain favour by swaying media polls, but she doesn't like the idea of people being paid by the public purse taking part.

"I would like to see government set that as a guideline for itself to follow and be accountable for it," she says.

When asked for an interview for this story, VOCM's news director was not available. NTV did not reply to email queries.

sbartlett@thetelegram.com Twitter: @TelegramSteve

Organizations: The Telegram, CBC, Progressive Conservatives

Geographic location: Corner Brook, Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Turry from town
    February 25, 2013 - 05:27

    Anybody is free to cast their vote or voice their opinion. But to try and sway the outcome of a vote by padding the results does not say much about the person,especially if it is an elected official.Dissappointing to see this is the kind of person representing the people of a district. But then again,that's the type of baffoons that seem to get elected in Mt.Pearl.

  • Mr.U
    February 25, 2013 - 01:26

    Ppl are so gulible..this is a non story.What ever happened to legit journalism? Sad really.

    • Kev
      February 25, 2013 - 09:22

      That you Kathy? Or paul? Or Steve? Or Vaughn?

  • Political Watcher
    February 24, 2013 - 21:38

    Both Lane and Kent are looking for ways to gain favour with the Premier. Considering that former Premier Williams had no time what so ever for Kent as he saw him as a true political opportunist who went from Alliance, Reform, Liberal then Tory just to get a seat; he will do anything to get into a Cabinet position. Sure he even referred to working hard in "HIS" department when defending his action on local radio. The last time I checked it was Minister Hutchings Department and Steve was secretary. Come on Steve, getting a little ahead of yourself are we? If it wasn't for the support of former member Harvey Hodder Lane would still be sitting in Centennial Square.

  • What Poll
    February 24, 2013 - 20:35

    Perhaps the Telegram should follow the CBC's lead and not refer to these votes as polls. In fact the CBC goes so far as to note that they are not scientific polls. Perhaps the Telegram should take some responsibility in the fiasco.

  • coco
    February 24, 2013 - 20:00

    So their own BlackBerry messages are unknown sources? Oh my. No hope. From his CBC interviews, I don’t think he mentioned one thing that he actually does for the big bucks we’re paying him. It sounded like a typical day was to go into the office, check his emails, goose the polls and then maybe some unspecified constituency work. I want my sales tax back! Obviously Paul Lane is only playing games and not doing anything important and if I had it to spend in my community at least it would be contributing to the economy.

  • Corporate Psycho
    February 24, 2013 - 19:14

    ......., ....... pants on fire. He also denied this publicly on the open line and cbc. The buffoonery is astounding.

  • Whaddaya At
    February 24, 2013 - 18:36

    A person can be charged with fraud,ie., intentional deceit, but a politician who intentionally deceives the public can't be charged ?. There's something wrong with that picture. Fraud is not fraud when it's committed by a politician ?. Fraud is not fraud when it's only the public that's been defrauded ?. It's high time to wipe the smirks off the faces of politicians who deceive the public and then shrug it off, when exposed, by simply saying that other politicians also do it. Perhaps with this recent display of deception by Paul Lane, steps should be taken to put a stop to it.

  • joe
    February 24, 2013 - 17:56

    I am sure Paul Lane will enjoy his LAST 2 years as MHA it will be YOUR LAST! I am sure he and Stevie Kent will need new jobs in 2 years, the people of Mt. Pearl are not going to stand for your childish behavior anymore. USELESS Representation