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Elections officials ‘bound’ to investigate early vote tweets

Tweeting election results is a no-no, Election Canada says – but only if someone complains.

As social-network sites buzz with news that Elections Canada could slap $25,000 fines on anyone who publishes election results prior to the closing of all polls across the country, spokesman John Enright said the agency is bound by legislation to ensure news doesn't travel across the country prematurely and affect results.

While it doesn't monitor sites such as Twitter and Facebook, it would pursue any complaints that come into the agency.

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"We don't monitor social media in any way, shape or form," he said. "The way this works is that it's a complaint-based process. The commissioner of Canada Elections is charged with receiving complaints, and if he receives complaints he's bound to investigate."

The law governing federal elections prohibits "premature transmission" of results across time zones, which means someone in Eastern Canada is forbidden from broadcasting local results lest they influence voters farther west who have yet to visit the polls.

The agency clarified its rules recently as it expressed concern about social media, warning that while results posted on private Facebook pages may be allowable because they can only be seen by friends, results posted to a user's wall could be considered a public transmission and subject to fines.

The agency didn't specifically address Twitter, but the social-media service is prime forum for politically active Canadians to discuss election information. A spokesperson later said that Twitter would fall under the same rules.

Grace Lake said the agency hasn't determined how it would monitor social media on election night, but said any complaints would likely be investigated by the commissioner of Elections Canada, whose job it is to enforce the act.

In 2000, Elections Canada brought charges against Vancouver blogger and software designer Paul Bryan, who published Atlantic Canada results on his blog. He was fined $1,000.

"The results of the election on voting day can be broadcast within the area that has already voted when the polls are closed, but can't be broadcast outside of that area before the rest of the polls are closed," said Ms. Lake. "Any kind of bleeding onto the Internet is prohibited. It's just like if someone has a radio station but also has a connected web station – if their web reporting goes beyond that (geographic) boundary then they can't put it on the web."

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The outrage hit Twitter in real time, as pundits and election watchers began registering their concerns.

"So is anyone in Canada organizing a mass tweet-in to protest the (absurd) ban on election night tweeting?" tweeted New York University professor and Internet journalism age thinker Jay Rosen Thursday morning.

"This is surely the last election when Sec. 329 of the Elections Act will stand," tweeted Queen's University professor Jonathan Rose.

The Internet has tripped up Elections Canada before. During the last election it was forced to rule on whether websites that encouraged "vote swapping" were allowable. The sites allowed voters to arrange strategic voting deals to try and distribute votes in key ridings.

Elections Canada determined that a Facebook group that promoted vote swapping didn't violate the Elections Act because media outlets have often encouraged voters to vote in a particular way. It would only be an offence if money changed hands, it determined.

"Future discussions on these matters should take into account other issues related to compliance and enforcement of the Canada Elections Act over the Internet," the agency wrote. "Is enforcement necessary or even desirable, and does Elections Canada have the mandate and resources to enforce the Act on the Web? Elections Canada looks forward to discussing these issues with political parties and members of Parliament."

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