Elections online

By Tom Kavanagh

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC.ca's 1996 B.C. election logo

Spring 1996: In British Columbia, the NDP’s Glen Clark is facing off against the Liberal’s Gordon Campbell.

April 16, 1996. Vancouver. Without fanfare, the CBC's first election website goes online. It provides coverage of the run-up to the provincial election to be called at the end of the month. The site will get just 14 visitors during its first week, but by election day – May 28th – the weekly total will be close to 5,000. The CBC's annual report for 1996-97 refers to the site in a single sentence: "Other special projects included the construction of a website for the B.C. election."

The website was a joint project of the CBC and the Southam newspaper chain's New Media Centre, both taking their first steps in this new medium and both regarding it as a test for possible future co-operative projects. Editorial content came from CBC News in Vancouver and from Southam newspapers in British Columbia. All the HTML coding and the posting to the site were done by Southam.

We faced two major challenges: how to use audio and video news reports on the website, and how to present the results on election night. These were early days for live video and audio on the internet, and today's desktop workstations which can handle all aspects of preparing items for the internet were but a dream. Each day the partners – the CBC in Vancouver and Southam in Edmonton – held a telephone conference to decide how much audio and video it was practical to use. News items from the CBC Vancouver supper show were recorded off the satellite at CBC Edmonton. They were picked up by a Southam employee, digitized by him (using a computer setup in his basement) and then attached to the appropriate news stories on the website.

In addition to the day's news, the site contained candidate and riding profiles, party platforms, election issues, and the inevitable polling reports. And we were able to include an element of interactivity by hosting live chats in which users asked questions of political candidates and reporters.

But the major aspect of the test was election night: would the site be able to keep its promise to users of live, up-to-the-minute results? Well, yes and no. Harried computer programmers worked, and stressed-out news producers fretted as early data-flow problems, plus the thousand or so simultaneous visitors during the first couple of hours after the polls closed, swamped the system. Eventually the company providing the service – a third partner hired for election night – was able to improvise a work-around and get things back on track.

We learned a lot from this experience, all of it useful for the next election website, this time for the 1997 federal election. But future projects with Southam New Media were not to be. The new media division disappeared in a company restructuring, and with it any trace of the 1996 election website.

Spring 1997: Jean Chrétien calls an election hoping to win a second majority government against Preston Manning’s Reform Party, Gilles Duceppe’s Bloc Québécois and Alexa McDonough’s New Democrats.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC.ca's 1997 federal election banner

The CBC’s online news service, now a year old, is ready to go it alone editorially. But it feels it still needs a partner to help provide the website infrastructure, and Bell Canada's Sympatico internet service is signed on to do this.

The site, bare-bones looking by today's standards, billed itself as the "Election Connection" and promised a wide range of background material as well as the daily news coverage. One big challenge we faced was assembling profiles and pictures of the 1,500 or so candidates who were in the running in this much bigger federal field. This kept us busy literally right up to election day – and would continue to be a challenge in future elections.

As was to become the practice for the CBC's election websites, this one went live on the day the election was called, April 27th. By the June 2 election day, we had posted over 600 news stories; analyses of such issues as job creation, aboriginal affairs, health care, tax cuts and Canadian unity; profiles of all ridings and most candidates; a look at past election results; links to party platforms; and discussion groups for political enthusiasts.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
Columnist Larry Zolf provided commentary for the 1997 election

And political criticism. Larry Zolf provided a running commentary during the campaign. A sample: “Preston Manning does not quite believe he is the son of God. But he does occupy the seat next to Him. Preston Manning certainly believes in Fresh Starts. Manning has had his eyes fixed, his hair stylized, his teeth capped. All Manning forgot to get was a voice lift.”

One aspect of the site provoked a lot of internal discussion: should we have advertising?  On the one hand it would provide some useful revenue for both the CBC and Sympatico.  But would it sully the purity of CBC News?  The eventual decision was that we'd depart from normal CBC practice and allow ads.  But there were post-election second thoughts, and it would be 2006 before ads would appear again on a CBC election site.

In a second departure from CBC practice, we ran our own online poll, with pictures of the leaders growing or shrinking during the campaign according to the votes they received. We managed to foil an attempt to hijack the poll, but in subsequent elections had to comply with normal policy and only report on polls taken by other organizations.

Election night itself went well. Because of Canada’s election law, no results could be put on the internet until everyone in Canada had voted. The restriction was accepted quietly this time (probably because we were glad just to be able to process live results at all!), but it would be argued about in future elections. The Sympatico server pushed out the sudden flood of live results with just a couple of hiccups. Unfortunately for us, one occurred at the exact moment a CBC vice-president made his first check of the results and found a frozen site. We were told he was not amused. But the 650,000 page views during the campaign may have eased the pain.

Fall 2000: Jean Chrétien is running again as are the Bloc Québécois’s Gilles Duceppe and the NDP’s Alexa McDonough. Stockwell Day leads the newly formed Canadian Alliance.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC.ca's 2000 federal election banner

By the 2000 election, CBC Online has grown substantially and is ready to handle on its own all the technical requirements as well as the editorial content of the site. From now on, everything will be done in-house.

For this election we wanted to stress not just news coverage and analysis, but to make better use of the internet by interactivity... with users, and with other branches of CBC News. There were daily meetings with the Radio and Television News desks, and audio and video links to their programs.

Interactivity with users took two forms: a Question of the Day which visitors to the site were asked to comment on; and a series of discussion forums which built on the success of the forums of 1997.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC.ca's "Smart Console" was a video and text tool provided for the 2000 election

The site featured what had by now become standard elements, such as profiles of ridings and candidates, guest columnists, and issue analyses. New this time was an election dictionary, defining the many terms involved in political coverage, and what we called a Smart Console, which included moving video and explanatory text in an on-screen window.

We also introduced a leaders' timeline, tracing their careers. This in a more sophisticated version would be a feature of future election sites.

Election night proved to be a big challenge again this time. There was much discussion about the Elections Canada rule which forbids publication of any results until all Canadians have voted. We knew that some sites in the U.S. would scoop us by reporting our results early, and that some private websites in Canada might do the same. But we also knew that there was no way the CBC would agree to allow us to break the law and release vote counts early. Our frustration was eased because we counted on other major Canadian news organizations obeying the law. We were right.

What frustration there was probably came as a result of working in a new medium and our reluctance to accept limits on what we were allowed to do. The restriction on posting results until the voting was over was, after all, the norm for radio and television coverage of elections in the past.

When the results began pouring in at 10:00 pm, almost every major website in the country crashed. And unfortunately that included us. We went down for a while, but did manage to recover. The one stable site belonged to the Globe and Mail, which made much of that fact in its post-election publicity.

Spring / summer 2004: Three new leaders and one veteran. Paul Martin calls his first election against Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and Jack Layton’s NDP. Gilles Duceppe is back for the Bloc Québécois.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC.ca's 2004 federal election banner

By 2004, the CBC is more than ready for the technical challenges of election night. Systems have been re-assessed and re-designed, and new procedures and equipment have been put in place that will ensure that the site stays up -- and stays fast -- all night. And it will now look like a CBC site, part of the CBC family graphically as well as editorially and technically.

The on-again off-again nature of the anticipated election call may not have been welcomed by the CBC's financial planners, but it gave those of us on the editorial side time to put together a feature-packed site that went live on Sunday, May 23.

Among the new or expanded features:

  • The Daily Answer, where we answered users' questions about politics and this election.
  • Your View, where we reported on letters received from users.
  • A Voter Toolkit, which told users everything they needed to know about the election (except how to vote!).
  • Interactive displays of economic, demographic and political information about Canada.
  • An interactive display of all the polls taken during the campaign, and there were many of them.
  • A history of Canada's minority governments (we'd have to add another one to the list after this election).
  • Coverage of a parallel election in a feature called Student Vote 2004.

As well, the site included columns and diaries from journalists, analysts, academics and voters across Canada; commentary on the tactics used by political spin doctors; summaries of daily newspaper coverage; a selection of editorial cartoons; and reports from a CBC bus that travelled the country. There were also election games, for those times when sanity demanded a break from the serious side of politics.

The abundance of features brought with it a problem that we never really solved: how to navigate around the site. Some features could only be found almost by accident. And one big section – Political Canada – never did get organized in any logical fashion. We seem to have solved our technical difficulties, only to find ourselves confronted with a tricky editorial one.

And we were still receiving irate letters from candidates and their supporters, criticizing us for incorrect or missing information in the candidate profiles. We made a major push to deal with the criticism, but it wouldn’t be until the next election that we finally came to grips with this popular website feature.

Nevertheless, the Online News Association selected the site as the winner in its Specialty Journalism category. In the words of the award: “CBC News goes well beyond the election coverage provided by many other news organizations."

A word about election night: a private website had broken the Elections Canada ban in 2000 and published early voting results before all Canadians had voted. The site owner won a subsequent court challenge by Elections Canada, and because there was no time for an appeal, the courts decided that all websites could begin reporting the 2004 results as soon as the polls closed in a province. In other words, when the polls closed in Newfoundland and Labrador, the vote count from there could be reported across the country even though other Canadians were still voting. This gave us an exciting election night, with a constant flow of results throughout the evening. But by 2006, a new court ruling put Elections Canada back in the driver’s seat, and there would again be no reporting of results until the voting was all over everywhere.

Fall 2005 / Winter 2006: After just 19 months in office, Paul Martin is forced to call an election. The four party leaders have a rematch.

Newsworld Online site, fall 1997
CBC.ca's 2006 federal election banner

As these things go, the 2006 election comes all too soon. And CBC Online finds itself forced to dust off its election plans prematurely and see what it can do this time that is new and different.

The uncertain political situation – would the minority government fall or would it not? – delayed the start of work on a new website.

But when a non-confidence vote in Parliament triggered the election call, CBC Online was ready to go with its updated site. All the usual features were there, as well as some new ones.

  • An expanded Reality Check where experienced journalists separated campaign rhetoric from reality. During the leaders' debates, they operated in real time, posting their comments on-screen while the debate was actually happening.
  • A new Riding Talk feature -- a discussion forum for each of the 308 ridings in the country -- allowed Canadians to debate their views on local as well as national concerns. Over the course of the campaign more than 10,000 submissions were published.
  • For those who wanted to get an insider view of what was happening, our traditional Analysis and Commentary section contained a new feature, Campaign Confidential.
  • And a Daily Blog Report for which John Bowman checked out and summarized a large variety of blogs from across the political spectrum.

Election night rolled along as smoothly as in 2004, presenting riding-by-riding results… but not until polls had first closed across the country. No crashes, no delays in updating pages, just a steady flow of numbers from the first count to the final result.

And that final result... another minority government. Will this mean another election soon? And another election website to get ready? You'll find the answer on our News pages, but we hope not for a while yet.

Tom Kavanagh has worked on all of the CBC's election websites. He was a producer with CBC-TV News Specials during the 80s and 90s, covering among other things elections and federal-provincial conferences.