Island Voices: Proportional representation isn't all about the data

A little-observed advantage of proportional representation is that it tends to produce a political culture in which elections are far less dependent on which party has the better data and data analytics.

Most readers have probably heard of the company Cambridge Analytica — the data analytics company that got into hot water over the illegal capture and processing of personal data from Facebook, and which mined data on voters according to their “psychographic” profiles. The company closed its operations this year, but its activities (and those of the Victoria company Aggregate IQ) are still under investigation in Canada and overseas.

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Cambridge Analytica was a symptom of a pervasive belief that elections are now won with data. The more a party knows about voters, actual and potential, the better its chances. Companies then compete on the basis of how many data points they can analyze on the typical voter. At one point, Cambridge Analytica boasted that it collected up to 5,000 data points on more than 220 million Americans, using more than 100 data variables to model target audience groups and predict voting behaviour.

A lot of this is corporate hype. And it is particularly prevalent in the United States, where weaker privacy laws have allowed a multimillion-dollar voter-analytics industry to develop. But Canadian politicians have also got into their heads that election campaigns should be “data-driven,” so that precise messages can be delivered through social media, email, text or old-fashioned campaign pamphlets to increasingly narrow segments of voters. And several practices pioneered in the U.S. are gradually creeping into our politics.

But here’s my point. These practices are far less common in countries that have multi-party systems rooted in elections based on proportional representation.

I have researched data-driven elections and their effects in several countries over the past few years. And the fact is that the use of personal data to drive campaigns is far more common in countries whose electoral systems are based on the first-past-the-past voting system, such as in the U.S., Canada and the U.K., than in countries that operate under a system of PR — such as those in continental Europe.

In a two-party system, where realistically only two parties have a chance of forming the government, it is far easier to “profile” the electorate. We know that Canadian parties give “scores” to each voter depending on their likelihood of support. These scores are then used to prioritize campaigning efforts and support get-out-the-vote operations on election day. And parties build large “voter relationship management” systems so that they can “know” their voters and those of the opposition more readily.

Data analytics can also facilitate voter suppression. The ongoing debate about foreign intervention in U.S. elections through secret Facebook accounts is just about that. And it was effective in 2016.

Traditional Democratic voting groups did not vote for Hillary Clinton in the same numbers as they have in the past. That was, in part, due to conscious voter suppression efforts driven by complex data analytics. And remember the robocall scandal in the Canadian federal election of 2011? That, too, was all about convincing members of opposition parties to stay at home.

In systems with PR, by contrast, which tend to encourage a greater number of parties, voters have a wider range of choices, and it is far more difficult to profile the electorate and predict voters’ behaviour. Predictive analytics are far less effective and far less common.

And voter suppression is going to be less effective. Why? A party has to be very careful about forcing voters away from parties on whom they might rely to be coalition partners after the election. It is a far more complicated calculation than in a country such as Canada — where the condition for forming a government is not a majority of votes, but a majority of parliamentary seats.

These are tendencies — rather than hard and fast rules. And there are other explanations: European countries tend to have stronger privacy laws than we do in North America, campaign financing laws tend to be more restrictive and people in countries that have recent memories of authoritarian rule are also far more suspicious of intrusive campaigning practices.

Although we should also be careful of drawing lessons from the voting systems of other countries, I am pretty convinced that one of the effects of PR would be a diminished need for so much personal data on the electorate.

So when you are trying to figure out the pros and cons of these systems from the material you receive from Elections B.C., consider whether our politics should continue these same trends. Should elections be won and lost over the question of who has the better data, the better data analytics, and the most effective ads delivered to more and more precise slivers of the electorate?

If you want to stop the Cambridge Analyticas of this world influencing our politics, proportional representation is one effective way to do it.

Colin Bennett is professor of political science at the University of Victoria, and has researched the use of personal data in elections in democratic countries.

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