Debates elections



Can political debates become more informative after the debate? Researchers in Britain are building a debate-replay website that aims to increase viewer comprehension,
engagement, and political confidence.
The Democratic Reflection app aims to gather nuanced feedback from political debate viewers. All images (c) the Election Debate Visualization Project.

Case Study:
 Election Debate Visualization Project
Country: United Kingdom
Research Team: University of Leeds: Stephen Coleman, Giles Moss (School of Media and Communication), Paul Wilson (School of Design); the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute: Anna De Liddo, Brian Plüss, Alberto Ardito, Simon Buckingham Shum (now at the University of Technology Sydney)
Debate: ITV Leaders Debate, April 2, 2015—the only debate where all seven leaders of British political parties met in advance of the May 7 general election for the 56th Parliament of the United Kingdom.

Picture this: You’re watching a televised debate involving two political candidates, and one of them accuses the other of breaking a campaign promise. There’s a denial, followed by a cross-accusation. Pretty soon you’re not sure if either candidate is telling the truth, but you are certain that they’re avoiding the central question, and the moderator seems unable to refocus the conversation.

Now, what if you could replay the debate—but this time, there’s built-in fact-checking and data maps that track the arguments and show who violated the debate rules? And what if the viewing platform was interactive, so you could call up previous articles about an issue, pull in other viewers’ responses to the debate, and share your own?

What if, in other words, debates became more informative after the debate? Could the enhancements increase viewer comprehension, engagement, and political confidence?

That’s the question researchers working in Britain on the Election Debate Visualization (EDV) project are attempting to answer.

Robust political debate is common in the United Kingdom; the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions has been broadcast live since 1990, drawing international audiences. The first televised election debates, however, didn’t take place until 2010. They attracted strong public interest, but through a series of national surveys completed before and after the debates, Stephen Coleman, a professor of political communication at the University of Leeds, found that many viewers were left with questions on the issues and uncertainty about the candidates’ competing responses.

In 2013, researchers from University of Leeds, including Coleman, teamed up with data science experts at the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute (KMI), a research and development lab, on the EDV project. The three-year effort (it concludes this fall) aims to identify the information needs of various audiences and create interactive visualization tools that respond to those needs.

“The analogy that I often use is that the debate is rather like trying to buy a car from someone who is a very fast-talking salesperson,” said Coleman. “What we want to do is to give you a chance to go home, sit at your computer, slow the whole thing down, take it apart, and really ask the questions that you want to ask.”

KMI researchers had already been conducting some informal experiments around creating interactive maps that tracked argumentative moves during the 2010 prime-ministerial debates. They were eager to do more with debate rhetoric and computer-supported argument visualization (CSAV), which captures and presents argument structure. They also wanted to analyze “fair play,” a specialty of EDV team member Brian Plüss, a research associate at KMI who codes linguistic behavior. Also known as non-cooperative dialogue, fair play refers to how well a candidate sticks to the debate rules. Avoiding a question or interrupting another candidate would be considered violations.

With a grant from the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council, the EDV team set out to develop an open-source web platform that would allow viewers to re-watch a debate with a full array of interactive visuals and analytics on discourse, audience feedback, debate topics (such as healthcare or the economy), and, in the future, data-mining tools that could answer such questions as, “Did the candidate actually promise this last year?” They named it Democratic Replay and expect to release in May, with a tutorial explaining the components.

But that’s not the only interactive use of technology they are introducing to the debate experience. Early on in the collaboration process, as ideas were being tossed around, the project team decided to see if they also could create an audience-response web app that would provide genuine insight into voters’ attitudes and needs. It was outside the project scope (and unfunded), but they were motivated by voters wanting a say in the debates and the limitations of existing ways to capture feedback.  

In 2010, for instance, U.K. debate broadcasters introduced the “worm,” an analytic tool used to gauge audience responses. Using a control device, such as a dial, a pre-selected group of voters register approval or disapproval of the candidates’ comments, and the responses appear in a line graph on screen, wiggling like a snake or a worm. Some researchers have had concerns about the tool’s influence on debate viewers.

“We agree with the view of the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications that ‘the use of the worm might distort the viewer’s perception of the debate,’” EDV team members wrote in a 2014 project report, referring both to the small sample of participants and the fact that the worm only asks the audience to “like” or “don’t like” what the candidates are saying. There’s no context.

More insight into voter reactions can be gained by analyzing Twitter activity during the debates, but this, too, is limited. “If instant audience feedback is to be a new fact of political life,” they concluded, “we need better tools for capturing and interpreting what viewers and voters are thinking.”

Gathering Debate Reactions

The audience-response app—called Democratic Reflection—began as a paper prototype. EDV team member Anna De Liddo, a research fellow at KMI and leader of the Collective Intelligence and Online Deliberation group, proposed using flashcards to elicit more nuanced feedback.

The team settled on 18 cards representing three categories: emotion (how debate viewers related emotionally with what they were viewing), trust (whether viewers trusted the person speaking or what was being said), and information need (if viewers had questions about the debate topics).

Collective intelligence systems generally require complex tasks to be broken down into smaller tasks, with the actions distributed across large collectives. Looking at how this could be applied to political debates, De Liddo focused on this question: “How can we capture and harvest people’s feedback to the debate in a way that is light and non-intrusive enough so that people may be willing to react, but also in a way that is nuanced and detailed enough so that analysts can make sense of the feedback?”  

The flashcards were designed to gather “soft feedback,” meaning that viewers voluntarily share what they are thinking or feeling. There are no intrusions, and no binary questions such as, “Do you agree or disagree with the candidate’s response?” This type of collective intelligence can be useful for analyzing both the viewer’s immediate experience and shifts over time.

On April 2, 2014, the team invited 15 students from the University of Leeds to demo the cards during a one-hour televised debate between Nick Clegg, then-deputy prime minister, and Nigel Farage, leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, on whether the UK should remain in the European Union. The BBC hosted the debate in front of a live audience.

Participants were encouraged to raise a card in the air at any time if it represented how they were feeling. The experiment was recorded so researchers could later code each response. They used Compendium, a software tool for mapping information, ideas and arguments with support for synchronized video annotation.

Plüss said the team initially thought the cards offered too many options. Debates can be complicated enough to follow without the added responsibility of choosing from 18 different reflections. To their surprise, the students not only engaged with the cards throughout the entire debate (researchers cataloged 1,472 times the cards were raised), they even started to combine several cards together to express more complex feelings.

When Plüss reviewed the video, he also realized the students started selecting the cards based on design elements. “That gave us a lot of courage because we thought if they engaged with these pieces of paper like that, then maybe if we give them an app, it’s going to be even easier,” he said.

Determining Democratic Entitlements

Around the same time the flashcards were being developed and tested, Coleman, along with two other University of Leeds researchers (Giles Moss, a lecturer in media policy, and Jennifer Carlberg, a doctoral candidate), asked groups of voters and non-voters about their experience with the 2010 televised debates and what they hoped to gain from future debates.

The Leeds team identified five demands, or “entitlements,” that people said the debates needed to fulfill in order for them to feel comfortable taking part in the democratic process:

  • They wanted to be addressed as if they were rational and independent decision-makers.
  • They wanted to be able to evaluate the claims made by debaters in order to make an informed voting decision.
  • They wanted to feel that they were in some way involved in the debate and spoken to by the debaters.
  • They wanted to be recognized by the leaders who claimed to speak for (represent) them.
  • They wanted to be able to make a difference to what happens in the political world.

The design of the focus groups was ambitious. Researchers looked at the relevance of debates in the broadest sense; that is, not whether the debates simply influenced viewers’ perceptions of the candidates, but what people need in the run-up to and during the debates to propel them to engage. (The interviews are also discussed in this report). This moved the focus from the politicians (suppliers of information) to the public (demanding information).

Why go to such trouble?

“We were looking at this on the basis that Britain claims to be, as the United States claims to be, a democracy. In a democracy, you have a public which is in charge and which makes the most important decisions about its future,” said Coleman.

“Very often when political scientists talk about the public, what they say is, ‘Oh, people can’t understand that,’ or, ‘This is too confusing for people.’ That wasn’t really good enough for us. We wanted to know the answer to the question, ‘What is it that makes this confusing?’ Is it inherently the case that the electorate is just dumb? Probably not. If not, then there are barriers in the way. If there are barriers in the way, what are those barriers? Are they barriers that are the same for everyone, or are they different for some people? Are they movable?”

Coleman said getting to that point was made possible by the decision to go into the focus groups with a curiosity about what norms people would establish for themselves, instead of establishing a set of norms for them to meet. Besides being surprised about how forthcoming people were about what they needed to make democracy work for them, and how much people wanted the debates to involve them as well as inform them, the researchers were a little startled by the lack of interest in digital technology as a solution.

“There’s an assumption that people are looking to digital technologies. They weren’t looking,” said Coleman. “They’re looking for particular opportunities to do things rather than particular technologies that they think have got a magic solution.”

Focus group participants came up with interesting ideas for improving the debates, said Plüss, including penalties for candidates who dodge questions. While such a suggestion would never pass the negotiation stage—much like it is with debates in the United States, the debate format in the United Kingdom is decided after a long negotiation between the political parties and the broadcasters—the EDV team began to envision how technology could be used to deliver more of what the public wants.

“If one of the politicians says something that has no evidential basis or that is plainly wrong, we can show it, and then make people aware of that,” said Plüss. “Even though we can’t make changes to the debates themselves, with technology we can empower citizens. That’s one of the overall grand goals of the project.”

From Flashcards to Web App

It took almost a year to turn the Democratic Reflection flashcards into a web-based app. The digital design ended up being similar, but the statements were restructured to extract meaningful insights around the entitlements identified in the focus groups. Coleman recalled arguments over Skype, debating whether to make the questions more colloquial, for example, or the options easier to analyze.

The choices now range from straightforward (“This is informative” / “I’m losing interest”) to more complex reflections (“If s/he understood my situation, s/he wouldn’t say this” / “S/he’s provided convincing evidence for this claim”).

“People’s reactions are used to make sense and assess the debate, but from a people-perspective,” said De Liddo, adding that this collective point of view “would be impossible to capture otherwise in such a rich way and, most importantly, in a way that provides very specific insights on the democratic entitlements.”

“Additionally, people who did not watch the debate can eventually ‘replay’ people’s reactions, and these can also be part of how they shape their opinion on the debate,” she added.

In March 2015, researchers assembled a dozen Open University students and staff in an auditorium to watch the Clegg/Farage debate from a year ago. This time, instead of holding up flashcards, participants could open the Democratic Reflection app on their laptops, tablets, or smartphones and select from 20 color-coded reaction buttons. A second test that month was similarly structured, except participants from the University of Leeds watched the debate independently (on YouTube), at home or at work, to better simulate a real-world scenario.

Everything worked as expected. But all of these tests involved university students or staff, so the users were generally tech-savvy, and no consideration was given to their age, gender, or political leanings. There wasn’t money in the budget to repeatedly test the app with a demographically representative sample of voters.

For that, the EDV team would have to wait until the main event—the ITV Leaders Debate on April 2, 2015—a year to the day of the original flashcard test.

One Test Becomes Two

In advance of the Leaders Debate, the EDV team turned to a polling company to recruit more than 300 people to use the Democratic Reflection app. Participants were given a pre-debate survey about their views on the election and a post-debate survey about the event and their experience using the app. At the end of it all, the team gathered data from 242 participants; some didn’t watch all of the debate, or didn’t complete both surveys.

Plüss said most users were active for the full two hours, with activity peaking near the end, during closing statements. The EDV team was concerned 20 buttons would making viewing more complicated, but that didn’t seem to be an issue.

“It leaves the question open to see how many [statements] people would be able to take,” said Plüss, adding that some users indicated that they would have liked more options, particularly more emotionally charged responses—the impolite things people say when they’re watching a debate and something happens that makes them yell at the TV.

On April 16, during a BBC election debate featuring the leaders of the five main opposition parties, the EDV team made the app available to everyone.

It wasn’t planned as part of the study, and they did very little promotion, only a couple of tweets and a mention on the Open University’s Facebook page. The server was optimized to support up to 700 users, said Plüss, and that night, as he watched the number of logins inching upward, he grew anxious. Close to 2,000 people joined in. Sure enough, the server crashed.

“Obviously, if we had collected that amount of data without any interruptions, it would have been amazing, but the fact that we got that amount of interest, I think it’s wonderful,” said Plüss. “It’s not that people were just coming in, taking a look, and leaving—they were actually wanting to interact.”

In fact, that interaction is probably what caused the crash. The team had modified the platform, allowing users to view a live feed of other viewers’ reflections as well as their own responses.

“The idea was to create a bit of a more of a social community kind of experience,” said Plüss. “Technically, that’s what got us in trouble, because that stream of information, when you have such a high number of users, is huge.”

The server was down for about five minutes. But Plüss considers the extra run a success of sorts: To his surprise, some users returned, and the EDV team ended up with about 400 streams of data—not useful for longitudinal data, due to the gap in the middle, but researchers could still study responses to specific moments of the debate.

Besides harnessing more data, said Plüss, “It was amazing to see that people had the appetite for this concept.”

The EDV team is open to discussions with media partners in and outside Britain interested in using the Democratic Reflection app in future debates. The entitlements on which the questions are based might be different, and the technology might be applied in different ways, but the ultimate goal of providing debate viewers with the means to express their emotions as well as their needs could be applied in any country, said Coleman.

“When we were doing this in April and May of 2015, we were saying to each other, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could do something for the presidential election in the States in 2016?’ My guess is it is almost certainly too late for that,” said Coleman, adding that Germany’s election in 2017 might be a more realistic possibility.

“What we’re looking at is who we can work with for the greatest public good,” he added.  

Launching Democratic Replay

Democratic Replay will be made public in May as a tutorial website. It will include an analysis of data gathered from the Democratic Reflection app—51,964 pieces of data to be exact, one for each time a viewer clicked on a reflection during the ITV Leaders Debate on April 2.

The EDV team is working on multiple layouts with programmer Alberto Ardito, a visiting research student from the Polytechnic University of Bari in Italy. One shows a timeline of audience responses; click anywhere on the timeline to bring up that point in the debate. Another option shows a histogram as the video plays. There’s also a “feedback flower,” its size corresponding to how many people chose a particular reflection during each 10-second segment.  

“What our analysis will show is what was going on during the debate when people felt that particular entitlements were either being satisfied or being particularly not satisfied,” said Coleman.

Users will be able to filter the demographic profiles of viewers who provided feedback, making it possible to compare, say, how men and women responded to a candidate’s statement. Argument maps, fact-checking, and other components will also be available.

The EDV team finished the first iteration of Democratic Replay in October, five months after the election—too late to test if the platform could affect civic engagement or influence voting behavior. But between May and the end of the EDV project in September 2016, the team will continue to assess its use.

In the future, it might be possible to produce a Democratic Replay within a week of a debate, said Plüss. That’s well outside the 24-hours news cycle, but the team thinks the value is in turning the debate into an educational resource and a hub of data for journalists and other researchers.

As for the general public, the platform is going to be most useful for those who watched the debate, said Coleman. Both technologies, Democratic Replay and Democratic Reflection, are aimed at people who are “taking some notice of what’s going on,” but who may not have followed everything closely or who have not yet decided who to vote for.

“What I don’t think Democratic Replay as a technology does is open up a lot of space for people who are completely disengaged from the process,” said Coleman. “I think that will involve us in a different piece of work.

“It can be done, but I think that the problem is to throw everything in and try to take the disengaged, the engaged-but-confused, and then the engaged-but-highly opinionated all together and assume that you can create technologies for all of them. You can’t, I think.”

After all, this isn’t the worm.

Debates elections Social Media

Round-Up: Crowdsourcing Debate Questions in Taiwan

Round-Up: Crowdsourcing Debate Questions in Taiwan

Plus: U.S. presidential debates popular in China, study on second screens and political engagement, and could televised debates in the UK become a thing?

  • Between Christmas and Jan. 2, Taiwan held its first and only vice-presidential debate and two presidential debates in advance of the Jan. 16 election.

    The first presidential debate was pretty standard: Candidates answered questions from the news media and then took part in three rounds of direct debates with one another. The second presidential debate, however, included something new: five questions from the public.

    The questions, all policy-related, were submitted via the online platform President, May I Ask a Question and voted on by the public. The platform was first used during Taiwan’s vice-presidential debate; here are the six public questions selected for that forum.

    Watchout spokesman Lin Zu-yi told Taiwan’s press last month that Watchout would select questions by lottery, drawing only from those questions that received at least 1,000 online signatures. We’ll have more on President, May I Ask a Question—developed by Google, the newspaper Apple Daily, and Watchout—in a future article.

    Plus: Remember Mitt Romney’s comment regarding “binders full of women” during a 2012 presidential debate and the memes that followed? KMT presidential candidate Eric Chu’s comment during the first debate about being encouraged to run by an unnamed elder woman sparked a similar flurry of responses, including the Facebook parody page Tamsui Grandma. Another site, Taiwan Fugue, is offering stickers for those worried about being held responsible for Chu’s campaign.

    tamsui grandma facebook parody page

    The Tamsui Grandma parody page on Facebook has more than 37,000 likes.

    Catherine Chou, a PhD candidate at Stanford University, has a fascinating analysis of the responses, looking at how language interweaves with humor.

    “That Chu would use Taiwanese when telling a humanizing story about an elderly lady is predictable; what is less so is that netizens and new political parties—overwhelmingly composed of the young—would respond in the same language,” writes Chou.


    How to Avoid Campaign Fatigue: Not every country is as speedy as Taiwan when it comes to presidential campaigns, but the United States is more like a marathon—or two. Brian Dickerson of the Detroit Free Press looks at how other countries manage to keep their campaigns shorter by putting limits on time, spending and/or by offering public financing.

    Is the U.S. system, which gives more time to candidates to make their case through primaries and debates, more democratic, or simply more adept at supporting all the third-party donors, businesses, journalists, and consultants who benefit from long campaigns?

    U.S. Debates Popular in China: The Guojiang Subtitle Group in China, a group of about 70 volunteers who produce subtitles for American TV shows, are translating the U.S. presidential debates. The videos, which are uploaded to a Weibo account and onto Chinese video-sharing sites, have become quite a hit in China, reports Owe Guo in The New York Times. The group was started by Zhou Qianyu, a Beijing high school student, in 2014.

    chinese translation republican debate

    Chinese translation of Republican debate hosted by CNN and Facebook.

    “Watching the U.S. presidential debates is like watching a football match,” said Yin Hao, one of the translators. “You see a lot of moves and tactics by the candidates, but eventually it all comes down to who scores.”

    You can watch the debates on Sina Video. Read the Times story for examples of comments by Chinese viewers.

    From Parliament to Television: Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for a live, televised annual “state of the nation” debate among party leaders. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon and Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told The Independent they would take part if Prime Minister David Cameron is willing.

    That seems unlikely. “Downing Street has said it will ‘look at the formal details of any proposal’, which is throat-clearing in advance of saying no,” writes political columnist Rafael Behr, who takes a broader look at debate participation and the shortcomings of prime minister’s questions.

    The call for an annual debate comes on the heels of a report by University of Leeds researchers showing that the 2015 general election debates increased viewers’ engagement.

    Second Screen Study: A study published in the Journal of Communication found that people who use social media to discuss televised debates are more likely to become engaged in politics as a result. The study, “Dual Screening the Political: Media Events, Social Media, and Citizen Engagement,” focuses on Twitter use during the 2014 European Parliament elections in the United Kingdom.

    “Twitter users who more actively participated in the discussion about the debates on social media using hashtags like #NickvNigel, #CleggFarage and #europedebate came away more energized and engaged with politics,” the authors of the study wrote in the Washington Post.

    New York University’s Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab helped the study’s authors identify social media users who tweeted about the debates.

    Get Those Second (and Third) Screens Ready: YouTube and NBC News are teaming up for the final Democratic presidential debate before the Iowa Caucus. The NBC News-YouTube Democratic Candidates Debate, hosted by the Congressional Black Caucus Institute, will take place Sunday, Jan. 17, in Charleston, S.C., with the action streamed live on the NBC News YouTube channel. The announcement notes that the debate will feature questions from the YouTube community, but we haven’t seen information yet on what that might involve. Check Civicist for post-debate coverage.

    Before Democrats take the stage, FOX Business Network will host a Republican presidential primary debate on Thursday, Jan. 14, also in South Carolina. Happy New Year, and happy debate watching!

    Sign up for the twice-monthly Rethinking Debates newsletter for the latest posts and news.

Debates elections



Taiwan kicks off 28-day presidential campaign, plus a look at the debates leading up to Spain’s surprising election and new research on the 2015 debates in the UK.

  • Taiwan’s three presidential candidates have agreed to take part in two televised debates before the Jan. 16 election.

    One of the debates will feature questions from the media, and the other will include questions from representatives of civic groups, Alex Huang, director of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Department of News and Information, told the Taipei Times.

    Candidates will also answer questions from the public submitted via “President, may I ask a question?”, an online platform launched by Google, the newspaper Apple Daily, and Watchout, which works to engage citizens and hold politicians accountable.

    -1All three are among the nine debate sponsors. Other media sponsors include the Central News Agency (CNA), Sanlih E-Televison (SET-TV), Public Television Service, and three other major dailies—the United Daily News, the China Times, and the Liberty Times.

    As we noted last week in the Rethinking Debates newsletter (have you signed up?), Taiwan’s political parties agreed to three debates following contentious negotiations over the format and hosts. The presidential debates have since been finalized for Dec. 27 and Jan. 2. The vice-presidential candidates will meet first, on Dec. 26.

    The presidential and vice-presidential campaigns received the official greenlight to start, well, campaigning just this past Saturday.

    Besides being amazed by the 28-day campaign limit (what would we do with all the free time?), we’ll be watching to see which questions are answered when voters use the ever-so-polite “President, may I ask a question?”


    Spain is confronting a new political reality after Sunday’s election broke the country’s two-party dominance and left the selection of prime minister in question.

    Seven debates were organized in the run-up to the election, with some of them embracing social media and innovative formats. A youth-focused forum in November, for example, was billed as the “first digital debate on Twitter,” with real-time questioning and commentary. Sponsored by Twitter and the European Youth Forum, representatives from six political parties took part:

    Later debates featuring opposition party leaders were broadcast on YouTube and on the website of the country’s largest daily newspaper, El Pais.

    Incumbent Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy agreed to only one debate, a sit-down with Socialist leader Pedro Sanchez. Held on Dec. 14, it was the campaign’s final debate, and it did not go well for Rajoy.

    The Podemos party, which was founded in 2014, made stunning gains in the election, but it would not have come as a huge surprise to those who were closely following the debates. Even though he was not invited to the final debate, Pablo Iglesias, the Podemos party leader and founder, won the El Pais debate, according to a poll sponsored by the newspaper.


    So how much do televised debates matter? In the UK, quite a lot, according to new study.

    University of Leeds study on UK debatesUniversity of Leeds researchers concluded that the 2015 general election debates “performed a crucially important civic role,” both by reaching younger and first-time voters and by helping citizens acquire information needed to make meaningful choices. The authors are calling on party leaders to commit to debates in 2020.

    Researchers first organized a series of focus groups to ask voters and non-voters about the 2010 televised debates and what they hoped to gain from future debates. They came up with five demands or “entitlements” people said they needed from political debates to be democratic citizens:

    • They wanted to be addressed as if they were rational and independent decision-makers.
    • They wanted to be able to evaluate the claims made by debaters in order to make an informed voting decision.
    • They wanted to feel that they were in some way involved in the debate and spoken to by the debaters.
    • They wanted to be recognised by the leaders who claimed to speak for (represent) them.
    • They wanted to be able to make a difference to what happens in the political world.

    The researchers then set out to determine how voters evaluated the 2015 debates in terms of meeting their needs. They noted that more than 30 percent of viewers of the first debate—a full debate between all seven leaders of the main parties—said they became “more interested in the election campaign.”

    And of those who said after the election that their vote was influenced by a media source, almost half (48 percent) referred to the televised debates as being among the most helpful—the highest percentage for any source of election information.

    “We found that many voters feel they have a right to see the party leaders debate on television,” said Stephen Coleman, a political communication professor and leader of the research team. “Debates should become part of the fabric of major political events.”

    View the full report: “The 2015 Televised Election Debates: Democracy on Demand?

    Sign up for the twice-monthly Rethinking Debates newsletter for the latest posts and news.

Canada Democracy elections



Vote swapping is reinvigorating some citizens’ interest in elections by offering them a greater say, and perhaps a greater influence on election outcomes.

Although it would come as news to a sizeable chunk of Canadians, they do not elect their head of government—at least not directly. Like some other nations that used to be British colonies, Canada is governed by the Westminster system, meaning the prime minister is appointed by the Queen’s local representative, the governor general. Normally, this official appoints the leader of the party that wins the most seats in the House of Commons, making the prime minister a democratically chosen leader in practice, if not on paper.

However, this democratic choice is arguably distorted by the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system, in which the candidate who gets the most votes in an electoral district wins a seat. FPTP is usually (though not always) consistent with the popular vote when there are two dominant parties, as in the United States, but because most Canadian ridings (electoral districts) now have three or more non-“fringe” candidates, somebody can easily win a seat without earning the majority of the votes, just so long as he or she still has more votes than each of the competitors.

As a result, Canada’s government is often elected by a minority of the citizens. The current prime minister’s party, the Conservatives, had 39.62 percent of the popular vote in the 2011 election. The geographical distribution of these votes also happened to give the Conservatives a “false majority”: they hold over half of the seats in the House of Commons despite having earned under half the vote—and are therefore able to pass legislation without support from any of the other parties.

Given the potential for this kind of scenario, it isn’t unusual for Canadians to cast a ballot, not for the candidate they like the most, but instead for the person they believe has the best chance of defeating the candidate they like the least.

Leading up to the Canadian election scheduled for October 19, web-based vote-swapping hubs are offering another tactical option. Instead of simply voting for second- or third-choice candidates, vote swappers aim to pair up with somebody who lives in a riding where their preferred party has a real chance of winning a seat according to poll data and statistical modeling. Each partner in the swap agrees to vote for the other partner’s preferred party.

Dr. Mai Yasue, a conservation scientist in Vancouver, thinks her priorities are most in line with those of the Green Party, but her riding is a close three-way race between the Conservatives, the Liberals and the New Democratic Party (NDP). “Although I’d like to show my support for the Green Party and help them gain a reputation of being a real Canadian political party, the idea of helping to give a seat to the Conservatives is abhorrent to me,” she says. She is looking to swap her vote with a Liberal Party supporter in a riding with a strong Green candidate.

Preserving the overall vote count of small parties like the Greens is one of the advantages of vote swapping. “It’s a way to get their leaders into the house, and these parties bring important conversations to the table,” says Craig Hubley, one of the administrators behind Vote Swap Canada 2015, a Facebook group where would-be swappers can post want ads to find a partner.

Another purported advantage of swapping is that once you’ve committed to vote on behalf of somebody else, your conscience is more likely to send you to booth on election day—even if you’re busy or tired. “It creates a feeling of solidarity between myself and the person I’m swapping with,” says Marena Brinkhurst, an NDP supporter voting in Nova Scotia who found a Liberal partner in Quebec through Vote Swap Canada 2015. “We’re in different provinces and we support different parties, but we’re both in the same bind and we can help each other. It’s a refreshing moment of connection and trust to find during an election.”

In addition, swapping offers the option of voting for a candidate whose track record or ideas you admire but who isn’t running where you live. “Maybe you can’t stand any of the people in your riding,” says Hubley. “But there must be someone, somewhere in the country, whom you can respect.”


Informal vote swapping between family and friends has probably existed for decades if not longer. Even before Canadians took to the web in 2008 to swap votes with strangers, a similar endeavor had been tried during the American presidential election in 2000, when Ralph Nader supporters in swing states agreed to vote for Al Gore in exchange for Nader votes in predictable states. One of the websites facilitating these arrangements,, was threatened with criminal prosecution by California’s secretary of state, frightening it (and others) into shutting down. Seven years later, it was vindicated by a circuit court’s decision that these threats had violated the website creator’s freedom of speech. Online vote swapping has continued playing a minor role in the United States ever since.

The Gore-Bush race was so close that Gore-Nader swaps held the potential to change the outcome, but since 2000, the margins of victory in presidential elections have been wider. In Canada, by contrast, it’s recently been the rule rather than the exception that a few thousand vote swaps could theoretically make the difference between a majority government (that can largely do as it pleases) and a minority one (that must cooperate to a certain extent with other parties)—and once you get into tens of thousands of swaps then you could even give the government to an entirely different party and prime minister.

The challenge is making these swaps in effective places. “Local riding polls are expensive,” says Hubley. “They’re mostly done by parties and kept secret.” In 2011, some of the publicly available riding projections were off, so that vote-swapping hubs’ recommendations were off, too. “That’s part of the reason why, in the end, there was no seat that we could point to and say, ‘That was us,’” Hubley says.

Former Green Party leader and author Jim Harris is trying to address this problem by crowd-funding polls in key swing ridings via “Statistical modeling is something to go by, but it’s not as reliable as an actual poll,” he explains, adding that the results of any polls he manages to fund will be made available to everyone, not only to the people formally registered to swap votes on his site.


There are several different ways a website can facilitate vote swapping. It can be a forum for posting want ads, it can host a partner-matching app, or it can be a place to register for swaps that will be orchestrated by humans behind the scenes. Each method has been tried out at least once, and each has its pros and cons. Want ads offer no privacy, but they let you zero in on exactly the type of swap you’d like to make for whatever reason. Different swappers might have different strategies in mind, and they can all simultaneously pursue them in a free-for-all.

The other two methods allow, if desired, for a more coordinated strategy—and administrators will ideally be transparent about what that strategy is., for example, is explicitly an anti-Stephen Harper site: its foremost goal is to prevent him from staying on as prime minister. Harris says this initiative is aiming to “concentrate swaps in fewer ridings and make a difference, rather than spread them out where their effect would be diluted.” To this end, only people who live in ridings that are known to swing between the Conservatives and another party can get a partner through Those who live in “safe” ridings are encouraged to participate by spreading the word.

In the Canadian context, vote swappers tend to be anti-Conservative because the other four seat-holding parties—despite their differences—are all left-leaning by comparison. So far, formal swappers also tend to be people who are more politically engaged than the average citizen, according to Hubley, although most of them would of course like to see swapping take off as a mainstream practice.

Neither Harris nor Hubley are game for predicting how many people will take part this year. In previous elections, the numbers have been modest but not so small that a real impact has been out of the question. In 2011, around 78,000 visitors perused, the largest vote-swapping hub at the time, and over 7,500 of them formally signed up. (As a point of comparison, the Conservatives won a majority government in that election by 6,201 votes.) There’s also evidence that discussing swapping—or hearing that it’s going on—motivates more people to vote tactically, with or without a swapping partner.

The leader of the Green Party of Canada, Elizabeth May, might partially owe the seat she won in 2011 to this effect, Hubley says. The Green supporters trying to find a swap in her riding outnumbered the potential partners who had signed up there, and canvassers mentioned this when they were going door to door. Although they garnered only around 120 formal swaps this way, May defeated the Conservative incumbent by a landslide, against expectations. “A lot of people there in Saanich-Gulf Islands might have said to themselves, ‘Why should I vote in a narrow, partisan way when all these Greens are willing to look at the big picture and make a compromise? And why should a party with nearly a million supporters not have a single seat?’” says Hubley. “Maybe it tapped into a primate fairness/reciprocity instinct.”


Elections Canada, the agency responsible for running federal elections, has weighed in on vote swapping only once, back in 2008. They said there is no law against it so long as no money is exchanged, but they also warned of the danger that your partner will not keep his or her promise to vote for your party of choice. Since it’s illegal to follow anyone into a voting booth and watch what they do, swapping must rely on an unverifiable handshake.

There would be less reason for vote swapping—and for assuming its risks—if elections were based at least in part on proportional representation (PR). Canadian citizens’ groups are advocating for this on Twitter under the hashtag #PR2015, and much of the chatter in vote-swapping web forums is about the kind of electoral reform that would make the practice obsolete.

Harris believes that vote swapping will accelerate the drive for reform, because parties and candidates would rather win or lose straightforwardly than have their fates decided by voter dealing. Also, the practice’s very existence—regardless of participation numbers—attracts media attention and highlights certain absurdities in the first-past-the-post system.

There’s reason to believe that adding an element of proportional representation to the voting system is not just a pipedream. The Canadian constitution does not stand in the way, the New Democratic Party has committed to it and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau has made it part of his election platform. Both the New Democrats and the Liberals currently have as good a chance of forming the next government as any party does.

Deciding exactly what types of reforms would best suit the country is another kettle of fish, and for his part, Hubley says he would rather stick with FPTP—with vote swapping as a “pressure release valve” for voter frustrations—than end up with any of his least favorite of the possible forms of proportional representation.

Whether from active campaigns by groups like Fair Vote Canada or merely from personal experience, plenty of Canadians are aware that many votes count for nothing under FPTP. Voter turnout in 2011 was 61.1 percent, 2008 saw a record-low 58.8 percent, and “the current system breeds apathy,” argues Yasue. If nothing else, vote swapping is reinvigorating some citizens’ interest in elections by offering them a greater say. “People who were feeling helpless have told me they’ve stopped feeling that way,” says Hubley. “The psychology of the swap is empowering.”

Samantha Rideout is a freelance writer and editor in Montreal.

elections First Post



How Bernie Sanders supporters are using Reddit, Facebook and clipboards to self-organize; Jeb Bush’s opposition to encryption; Amsterdam’s Internet of Things network.

    • Tech and the presidentials: Must-read: How Bernie Sanders supporters around the country are organizing themselves, frequently in advance of the campaign or with limited help from it, using Reddit, Facebook and clipboards, as reported by Ben Schreckinger for Politico.

    • One key Sanders supporter is Aidin King, a 23-year-old winery employee who administers the Bernie Sanders for President subreddit, which has 90,000 subscribers. (Notably, the Sanders campaign has made no moves to take over the Reddit page–those of you with long memories will recall how the Obama campaign’s online organizing team took over a supporter’s grassroots MySpace page back in 2007. One of the people responsible for that decision, Chris Hughes, is now the owner of The New Republic. The other one, Scott Goodstein, is working for the Sanders campaign.)

    • Related: On Facebook, Zack Exley shares that he joined the Bernie Sanders campaign six weeks ago, where he says he’s “doing the massively-scaled movement organizing work that I’ve been dreaming about, and only scratching the surface of, for two decades.” Exley was director of online communications and organizing on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, and also co-founded and was the president of the New Organizing Institute.

    • Interviewed for a Time magazine cover story, GOP frontrunner Donald Trump (who is also self-organizing his campaign) says he would get rid of the artificial separation between Super PACs and candidates, arguing “Now you’re not supposed to talk, you’re not supposed to – they go out and play golf, they get together, but they don’t talk. Who believes that? So I want transparency. I don’t mind the money coming in. Let it be transparent. Let them talk, but let there be total transparency.”

    • Paging Larry Lessig: Trump also says this about Members of Congress and campaign finance:

      All they do it fundraise. They don’t really govern. They just fundraise. Their whole life is raising money. And I say what percentage of the time you’re raising money as opposed to legislating? …I mean they’re constantly – it’s that time of year, you come in. I mean that’s all they do is raise money….It’s the rare politician that can do what’s right in the face of massive contributions.

    • And in a comment that is sure to interest companies like Apple, which have billions in profits parked overseas to avoid paying U.S. taxes, Trump says, “We should let them back in. Everybody. Even if you paid nothing it would be a good deal. Because they’ll take that money then and use it for other things.”

    • GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush says he’s against encryption, reports Jenna McLaughlin for The Intercept. This is kind of like saying you are against math. The actual quote, from a South Carolina event sponsored by Americans for Peace, Prosperity and Security, was ““If you create encryption, it makes it harder for the American government to do its job — while protecting civil liberties — to make sure that evildoers aren’t in our midst.”

    • The New Yorker’s Jeffrey Toobin makes a really good point about the latest twist in the Hillary Clinton email server brouhaha: the post-facto discovery that some of her emails might have contained classified information is largely meaningless, because government bureaucrats routinely classify far too much information and often do so for reasons have little to do with actual national security. And, as he notes, “Criminal violations for mishandling classified information all have intent requirements; in other words, in order to be guilty of a crime, there must be evidence that Clinton knew that the information was classified and intentionally disclosed it to an unauthorized person. There is no evidence she did anything like that. This is not now a criminal matter, and there is no realistic possibility it will turn into one.”

    • Future, Imperfect: Cosmopolitan’s Jill Filipovic reports on how Twitchy, a conservative online platform founding by rightwing blogger Michelle Malkin that monitors Twitter, has become an “organized harassment tool.” The site, which Malkin sold to Salem Media, gets 2 million unique visitors a month. She notes that “Twitchy’s terms of use disallow content that is ‘fraudulent, unlawful, threatening, abusive, harassing, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, offensive, pornographic, profane, sexually explicit or indecent,’ but those terms don’t seem to be enforced.”

    • The Awl’s media writer John Herrman says the data dump “is in some ways the first large scale real hack, in the popular, your-secrets-are-now-public sense of the word. It is plausible—likely?—that you will know someone in or affected by this dump.”

    • This is civic tech: A bottom-up network of Amsterdam residents have built an open “Internet of Things” wireless network, Martin Bryant reports for The Next Web. “Unlike other ‘smart city projects’,” he notes, “this one is entirely crowdsourced by citizens and was put together in just six weeks.” Ten $1000 LoRaWAN gateway devices were all it took to cover the entire city.

elections First Post



Why to take Donald Trump seriously; Lawrence Lessig’s open source campaign; and warnings about the Internet’s future.

  • Tech and the Presidentials: Just as the Obama campaign collected the mobile phone numbers of tens of thousands of supporters attending his mass rallies, candidates like Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are looking to the text message channel as the best way to communicate with their core supporters, Nick Corasaniti reports for The New York Times.

  • Politico’s Annie Karni reports on concerns among Clinton allies that her response to the ongoing questions about her private email server is too legalistic.

  • Wondering why Donald Trump is doing so well in Republican primary polling? Political scientist Lee Drutman argues in Vox that its because he’s in tune with a sizable chunk of the public: populists who want to reduce immigration AND protect Social Security, who may be as many as 40% of the overall electorate. What holds these two positions together is a “turning inward” mood led by Americans fearful that their middle class standard of living is disappearing. (Republican business elites who favor cutting Social Security while taking a more liberal view of immigration are deeply out of touch with their party’s base, he adds.)

  • If you subtract Trump’s demagoguery on immigration from the picture, he’s somewhat more moderate than most of the other Republican contenders, Josh Barro argues for The Upshot. He cites Trump’s statements and positions on taxes (he hasn’t signed Grover Norquist’s pledge to never raise them) abortion (he favors allowing it in cases of rape or incest), and trade (he’s not a free trader) as example.

  • My view: If Trump starts talking up his call to eliminate the inheritance tax in exchange for a one-time mega-tax on the mega-rich (14.25% on individuals and trusts worth $10 million or more), which he made in his 2000 book, The America We Deserve [h/t to Daily News columnist Errol Louis for the long memory], and keeps talking about how all the other top GOP candidates are too beholden to their billionaire Super PAC backers to call for anything similar, he could take the Republican base away from the party establishment entirely and win the GOP nomination. And if he fails at that goal, the Commission on Presidential Debates will be hard pressed to exclude him from the general election debates if he runs as an independent, since he’s highly likely to be above 15% in the polls if he keeps campaigning.

  • All of the software that Lawrence Lessig’s 2016 presidential campaign makes will be released “under the GPL 3.0 open-source licence [sic]”, and all creative materials will be released “under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 licence [sic]”, his exploratory committee announced. We have no idea why his organisation is honouring Her Majesty’s English.

  • Ross Choma reminds us in Mother Jones that most online political advertising is essentially unregulated compared to TV or print ads, where the names of the organization paying for them have to be disclosed.

  • Future, Imperfect: Jennifer Granick, the director of civil liberties at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society, gave a powerful keynote at the Black Hat 2015 conference earlier this month. She’s posted a modified version of her talk on Medium, entitled “The end of the Internet dream.” She warns: “For better or for worse, we’ve prioritized things like security, online civility, user interface, and intellectual property interests above freedom and openness. The Internet is less open and more centralized. It’s more regulated. And increasingly it’s less global, and more divided. These trends: centralization, regulation, and globalization are accelerating. And they will define the future of our communications network, unless something dramatic changes.” (h/t David Isenberg)

  • Hackers who stole user information from the adult cheating site have now posted the data on the dark web, Kim Zetter reports for

  • This is civic tech: Congrats to Civic Hall member company Citymart, which has been hired by New York City to help make its procurement processes more flexible and open to smaller vendors and new technologies, as Miranda Neubauer reports for Capital New York.

  • The FCC has fined Smart City $750,000 for blocking people attending conventions from using their personal mobile WiFi hotspots and forcing them to pay for Smart City’s Wi-Fi, Sarah Lawson reports for Fast Company.

Civic Tech elections First Post



Is it really a “social media election”? How #BlackLiveMatters is engaging Hillary Clinton; and the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows program grows up.

  • Tech and the Presidentials: Welcome to the social media election,” writes David McCabe for The Hill. Really? Does anyone have any evidence that shows that the presidential campaigns putting a lot of effort into their candidate’s social media postings are doing better than their less-savvy peers? McCabe’s examples include both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, who are doing better than expected in the polls, and Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Scott Walker, who are all doing as predicted or worse, despite their social media prowess.

  • Here’s the video of Hillary Clinton’s August 11 meeting with five #BlackLivesMatter activists in New Hampshire last week, posted by GOOD Magazine’s Gabriel Reilich. The activists press Clinton on her support for the massive increase in “tough on crime” measures in the 1990s, championed by her husband while he was President. Interestingly, Clinton appears to admit that she is a “sinner” in the context of the rise of mass incarceration of black people. As MSNBC’s Ari Melber tweeted, “Candor & tension in Clinton-‪#BlackLivesMatter‬ mtg shows why citizen Qs for pols are powerful.”

  • Spending on online political ads is projected to top the $1 billion mark in the 2016 cycle, Jon Lafayette of Broadcasting & Cable reports. That would be a first, but at the same time most political dollars, $8.5 billion, will go to broadcast TV ads.

  • Opening Government: A new executive order from President Obama has made the White House Presidential Innovation Fellows Program, which pulls technologists from the private sector into government for one-year stints, a permanent federal government program, as this post on Medium explains.

  • The winner of the Federal Trade Commission’s “Robocalls: Humanity Strikes Back” civic hacking competition is a mobile app appropriately called RoboKiller, which uses audio-fingerprint technology to identify and block likely robocalls. As they explain on their Kickstarter page, “Before a user’s phone rings, we trick robocallers to start playing their recorded messages so that we can start our analysis. Live callers hear traditional ringing during this process. If RAE [their “rob analytics engine”] determines that a call is from a robot, it never rings through; we send it straight to the user’s SpamBox in the RoboKiller app. Humans, on the other hand, ring through to the user as soon as their legitimacy is confirmed.” (h/t Consumerist)

  • This is civic tech: Google engineer Carl Elkin used his 20% time to build Project Sunroof, which uses Google Earth mapping to help people figure out their home’s solar energy potential. It’s available in the San Francisco, Fresno and Boston areas now. As Elkin explains, the tool “first figures out how much sunlight hits your rooftop throughout the year, taking into account factors like roof orientation, shade from trees and nearby buildings, and local weather patterns. You can also enter your typical electric bill amount to customize the results. The tool then combines all this information to estimate the amount you could potentially save with solar panels, and it can help connect you with local solar providers.”

  • New on Civicist: Contributing editor Mark Headd notes the increasingly cozy relationship between civic hackers and government, and argues that “a little subversion is still necessary.”

Civic Tech elections First Post future of work



Is Amazon’s grueling workplace the future? Can Lawrence Lessig fire up the Internet? How tech can help Asian language speakers navigate the voting process.

  • The Future of Work? In case you missed it, Amazon is a pretty hyper-competitive place to work, according to Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld’s long investigative piece for Sunday’s New York Times. Perhaps the creepiest revelation in their story is the “Anytime Feedback Tool,” an internal communications widget that “allows employees to send praise or criticism about colleagues to management” which “many workers” call “a river of intrigue and scheming.”

  • Amazon employee Nick Ciubotariu offers his rebuttal on LinkedIn. I found his faith in the company kind of charming. As he writes, “We’ve got our hands full with reinventing the world.”

  • And company CEO Jeff Bezos says, in an email to his employees first reported by John Cook of GeekWire, “I strongly believe that anyone working in a company that really is like the one described in the NYT would be crazy to stay. I know I would leave such a company.”

  • Tech and the Presidentials: BuzzFeed’s Rosie Gray reports on how Republican front-runner Donald Trump is renting conservative email lists to fundraise for his campaign. She notes that Trump has said he doesn’t need to fundraise, but it’s just as likely that the billionnaire’s rental of lists from PJ Media, Newsmax and the Daily Caller may also be a way for him to buy favor with their owner’s.

  • Brigade is hosting a forum this Thursday in San Francisco with Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley and several civic tech leaders, focusing on “how public and private sector stakeholders can adapt digital tools to improve the impact of government, elevate marginalized communities, and tackle our country’s most pressing shared challenges.”

  • Jimmy Wales, the cofounder of Wikipedia, explains on Medium why he is chairing Lawrence Lessig’s exploratory presidential campaign committee.

  • In my humble opinion, Lessig’s plan for getting elected president and serving only long enough to pass fundamental pro-democracy reform through Congress (a laudable goal) reminds me a lot of the South Park gnomes episode–Step 1: Collect underpants. Step 2: ???? Step 3: PROFIT.

  • This is civic tech: Code for Africa has just received a grant of $4.7 million for the next three years from the Gates Foundation to extend its work supporting data journalism, focusing on three hub nations: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa, the organization’s chief strategist Justin Arenstein writes on Medium.

  • Asian-American e-activist group 18 Million Rising is raising money on Indiegogo for VoterVOX, an app that will connect multilingual Asian Americans with voters needing language assistance to navigate the voting process. According to a 2012 exit poll from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, nearly 1 in 4 Asian Americans prefer to vote with help from an interpreter or translated materials.