I was delighted when Sherman Downey and the Ambiguous Case, a band from Corner Brook, won the CBC Searchlight competition for Canada’s best new band. I like the band’s music, and they are an engaging bunch — and on top of that, the song that they had in the competition was better than each of the songs it came up against.
I was less than delighted about the process of the competition, especially as the contest reached its last few competitors and local CBC anchors began explaining, on air, how you could vote multiple times for Downey, as long as you were careful to vote from a series of different computers and electronic devices. Every device, it seems, gets its own vote.
Now, you can argue that explaining that to radio listeners was simply an effort at levelling the playing field — everyone else voting for every other band could also vote multiple times, using the same system. That being said, I found it a little discomforting to find myself being told, essentially, how to cheat the system to help someone win a contest.
After all, the CBC itself had set the system up in an effort to keep people from simply sitting at their terminals, clicking “vote” over and over again, with the idea being “one person, one vote per day.”
Finding an end run around that, even in a small way, seemed like an unfair advantage.
That’s because the reasons for voting go far beyond making the best choice. Sometimes, people in this province are urged to go out — in a variety of online competitions — to vote for a certain finalist solely because that finalist happens to be from here. Kind of a “help give a neighbour a leg-up.”
In a small province keenly aware of the disparity between it and its bigger neighbours, that kind of call to action can — and does — motivate the population in a way that doesn’t seem to happen in larger provinces, which seem less concerned about waving their own particular flags.
In fact, some of the bigger provinces don’t seem to care if the winner is from their province or not.
It’s become a kind of tradition here, though. After all, even our government rigs online polls, apparently seeing no problem in deliberately projecting an appearance that they’ve created a carefully structured political machine, rather than having any honest wish to know how the public feels.
Networking for votes is fine, I suppose, for some contests; picking possible new superstars through for-profit telephone calls on “American Idol” lets the public have a voice for whatever reason they actually decide to vote, whether it’s a matter of talent or simple geography.
But that networking has a darker side, especially when the effort to rig results extends beyond offering a singer an opportunity and into, say, the dispersal of charitable funds.
More and more charitable foundations are asking the public to “vote” online to pick projects that should be funded. The Aviva Community Fund gave away $1 million to charitable causes last year, describing the process like this: “1) Think of an idea that will have a positive impact in your community. 2) Enter it in the Aviva Community Fund competition. 3) Get everyone you know to vote for it.”
That’s happening with larger funding bodies, too — meaning that, among other things, charitable organizations have to spend valuable time “getting the vote out” in an effort to find funding for valuable projects.
And the simple fact is that a partially informed public, voting with simple clicks of a mouse, is not the best judge of which projects should be funded, where global needs are highest and where there might be clear overlaps.
You shouldn’t have to make one particular brand of suffering the most popular or the sexiest in order to have it addressed.
Almost by definition, the greatest needs are the ones that are the most outside of the public consciousness. They are not everyone’s favourite band.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s
editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.