People and Places

ELECTION CHATTER (DAY 7): Vote Compass asks Ottawa Mag blogger Mark Bourrie to give its survey a second chance

Day 7: In which one Vote Compass author takes issue with yesterday’s Election Chatter blog and challenges Ottawa Magazine contributing editor Mark Bourrie to take another look.

After my Vote Compass-themed blog appeared yesterday, I was contacted by the academic who put together the CBC Vote Compass. And it turns out to be a very small world: I’ve known Peter Loewen, a University of Toronto political scientist, for years and I can vouch for him as a good scholar and a man with an open mind.

He pointed out a few things to me. There is, buried behind the main survey, questions that give you the opportunity to match your priorities with those of the main political parties. This gives the survey taker a more nuanced way to match their beliefs on important issues to those of the candidates.

And, he says, the survey makers tried hard to create an honest poll.

So today I’ll put on my peer review hat and get a bit academic to say what I would have told the CBC if they had come to me in my role as a lecturer on propaganda, news manipulation, and censorship. I’ll set aside the little newsprint hat of Mark Bourrie, Ottawa Magazine contributing editor, and write as Dr. Mark Bourrie, historian and media analyst.

Here are my problems with the Vote Compass:

First, anything resembling a study clearly explains its methodology. This survey does not. It is unclear what criteria were used to place the political parties in the quadrant graph on the CBC site.

Second, there is no disclosure of the methodology or computer algorithms used to determine the final location of the marker for the survey score.

Third, there is no disclosure of the authors of the survey.

There are other very serious problems with this survey that would lead a reasonable person to believe it is inaccurate or biased. The survey asks about different economic, social, and political topics, but does not give the survey subject the ability to prioritize them.

For example, there’s a question about federal meddling in Quebec arts policy. For a Quebec nationalist artist, this is an important question. For an Inuit hunter in Iqaluit, it probably isn’t. The former may well base their vote on this issue, the latter probably would make the decision using other criteria.

It’s the same with the question about tougher penalties for marijuana possession. An activist of NORML, the National Organization for the Repeal of Marijuana Laws, would probably base their vote on this issue. For many other people, it’s not as important.

The question about improved access to abortion would likely tap into the feelings and fears of women more than men. And the issue is, for the most part, a provincial jurisdiction anyway.

Then there’s the problem of the wording of the questions.

One question asks about support for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan. Does that mean the soldiers who will be training the Afghan army and police after our combat mission ends? What if the question is framed as: “Do you support Canadian participation in the training of Afghan security forces to protect infrastructure, such as schools for girls, built by Canadian aid agencies?” would the results be the same?

Another question asks: “Should Canada increase its military presence in the Arctic?”

At first glance, this is a simple question. But it’s a complex issue. The authors could have easily asked the following three questions and got very, very different responses:

1. Do you approve of militarization of the Arctic?

2. Do you approve of an increased military presence in the Arctic to protect Canadian sovereignty in the region?

3. Do you approve of an increased military presence in the Arctic to prevent other nations from attempting to exploit oil, gas, and other resources in Arctic waters claimed by Canada?

Here’s another question that seems simple at first blush, but is anything but: “The federal budget deficit should be reduced, even if it leads to fewer public services.” Does that mean reduced funding for narcotics agents? Prisons? The military?

Because to answer it fairly, you’d have to know what’s on the block. Very few people would argue that there are no federal services that we could do without. The pro-pot lobby may very well cheer the reduction of the number of narcotics agents. Some Native people may be glad to see the end of the “public services” provided by Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

There are some questions that most people can’t answer with any authority. For instance, there’s one that asks whether pollution caused by the oil sands is exaggerated. I’ve never been there. Have you? Or is there an impenetrable blizzard of conflicting claims from lobbyists on both sides of the issue?

What about the question: “How much should be done to accommodate religious minorities in Canada?” Are we talking about allowing Christmas carols in schools? Time off for Jews to celebrate their high holidays? Prayer rooms in colleges for Muslims? Tolerance of honour killings and female “circumcision”?

Those are my main problems with the Vote Compass. And the CBC has really botched this thing by suggesting the survey matches you to a political party that matches your economic and social beliefs. At most, the poll is a starting point for discussion and has some entertainment value.

I doubt very much we’ll see a Vote Compass in the next election.