A Kick In The Ballots


From top: Counting during the last General Election in Citywest; Dan Boyle

I was elected at my first election to what was then Cork Corporation, now Cork City Council. I was active in my local community, and was strongly associated with a campaign to improve the management of, and seek the earliest closure of the nearby city dump.

These were the reasons for most of my support. I did these things because I believed them to be worth doing, and I hoped that in the context of an election that some voters might think that was worth the consideration of their vote.

I wouldn’t have had the inclination nor the capacity to have engaged in market research, to test for issues that might play best with voters.

In subsequent elections I never acquired that inclination. It seemed to me to be a fairly hollow choice; either you contested elections on the basis of who you were and what you had done, or you moulded yourself into something you were told the voters wanted.

That second choice ran against everything I wanted to be in public life for. I suppose a refusal to play that game would prove a constant electoral negative for me.

In those subsequent elections I thought, naively now I know, that I should seek the support of those who didn’t participate in elections. Four out of every ten voters didn’t. To convince even some of them should help put me in the running, I thought.

In the mid nineties this seemed to have something of an effect. In a by-election then (when I came close to stopping Hugh Coveney winning the seat) I canvassed everywhere and anywhere I could. Canvassing the Deanrock Flats in Togher (since thankfully re-developed) was a huge political education for me.

I won 17% of the vote in that election. I was the obvious protest candidate. Even I realised that it would be difficult to maintain that vote in future elections, although I did maintain about three quarters of that vote.

As a candidate for a smaller party resources and manpower are always less than adequate. The temptation to cut through with less is ever present. The irony is that those short cuts tend only to be available to those with the resources to buy them.

The short cuts devised were quite legal, if unsatisfactory. The concentration in canvassing was made in areas where we had already done well, seeking to improve our votes there. This meant canvassing less in areas where people were less likely to vote, or support for a Green candidate was less likely to happen.

One canvassing tool that I tended not to use, was available from the local authority. This was the marked register. This shows which voters had cast a vote in a previous election (but not how they voted).

That would have been stored in the collective memory banks of the traditional parties. Until recent elections this analogue data would have proven quite accurate.

Then came the enlightenment. This short period where people have pondered more deeply on their political choices, being rightly more indiscriminate in making those choices.

We should value more our political system that still requires pen and paper to cast votes, demands of candidates to interact directly and personally with the voting public, a public that itself is at its most fickle in our country’s history.

The alternative of the electronic mining of personal data, with the creating of algorithms on how people tend to think, is taking the democratic political World to very dark places.

Ireland was an antidote in a previous dark age. We should be so again.

Dan Boyle is a former Green Party TD and Senator. His column appears here every Thursday. Follow Dan on Twitter: @sendboyle

Top pic: Rollingnews

29 thoughts on “A Kick In The Ballots

  1. Brother Barnabas

    how though, dan, can you stop the democratic political world being taken to these “dark places”? efforts to control what happens online, especially, have pretty much failed in other spheres of life. are there practical solutions or do we have to adjust to it?

    1. Dan Boyle

      I think there should be a permanent Electoral Commission although resourcing that adequately will prove extremely difficult.

    1. Nigel

      Always felt we dodged a bullet when those e-voting machines went into storage, for all that they still represent yet another horrific waste of money by FF.

  2. Andrew

    I don’t remember pieces like this or that much hand wringing and concern for the democratic process when Barack Obama won the U.S. election in 2012.
    The Guardian were very enthusiastic about these practices back then. Not so happy now though.



    Either way, this is nothing new and if anything the claims that Cambridge Analytica have made about its capabilities are vastly overstated. The Observer/Guardian don’t actually care about the efficacy or otherwise though, they care about the results they don’t like. Namely the U.S election of Trump and the result of Brexit referendum.

      1. Nigel

        This is true only if you literally ignore nearly every other aspect if the two stories beyond ‘used data for political campaigning.’ They are clearly worth comparing, but they’re equivalent only in the sense that one was the evolution, arguably the wraponisation, of the other. Whatever about the Guardian not liking the results that gave us Brexit and Trump, plenty of powerful and well-resourced people didn’t like the election of Obama, and failed to find anything remotely as bad as this in connection to his campaign.

        1. Clampers Outside!

          True, but the treatment in the press, looking specifically at Wylie’s data mining for Trump, and Obama’s data mining, is directly comparable.

          Of course the entrapment stuff by CA, a tactic as old as democracy itself, is also a despicable difference in method between the two. But in no way should it be used to say that Obama’s data mining approach was acceptable.

          Data mining – bad. Obama and Trump campaigns are both guilty.

          Entrapment – also bad. Trump campaign guilty.

          I think we are in agreement there.

          1. Nigel

            No. Listen. This raises concerns about data mining and how it’s used both in marketing and, now, in politics, yes, Huge concerns. But in terms of guilt, Trump’s crowd STOLE the data, Obama’s crowd DID NOT. They got their data openly and transparently and voluntarily. (Or nobody has shown that they did otherwise, and in fact, CA may have later stolen the Obama voter data via shenanigans.) So, if you still think that there’s a double standard in the treatment of a crowd that stole the data and engaged in blackmail and entrapment, and a crowd that did none of those things, then what the feckin feck?

    1. some old queen

      Let’s wait and see what is thrown up once the Analytica search warrant is granted before jumping to conclusions eh?

      1. Andrew

        It is highly unlikely that an algorithm that examines a few dozen ‘likes’ can glean anything other than a very superficial indication of a user’s preferences, politically or otherwise.
        I know what will happen now though :there will be increased calls for regulation and which will threaten free speech.

        1. some old queen

          Well firstly it wasn’t a few, it was the activity of 50m over god knows how long so it was a huge dataset.

          Secondly, why this makes people uneasy is because it identifies information unwittingly or unknowingly divuledged. It’s called inference and while not an exact science (no AI is, that’s the whole point), is getting pretty accurate.

          But, I think it is incredibly naive to assume this is all being done by private companies with a sole profit motive. I would be very surprised if there was not foreign state involvement in both elections and I don’t expect it to be the russians.

          1. Andrew

            I said that the analysis purported to provide intelligence on the strength of very dubious data. There were 50m in scope but the strength of that data and its collation relies on ‘very few’ metrics.
            This is being overblown and the discussion around it and those leading it are hypocritical in the extreme.

          2. Nigel

            I mean, does the hypocrisy rely on not being outraged that the Obama campaigned effectively using data, but not reportedly doing anything underhanded or illegal or ethically dubious, while being horrified at this lot, who dId? Because I’m inclined to think the hypocrisy lies with those who ignore that crucial difference.

          3. some old queen

            @ Andrew, It’s been a long time since I done any work in this area but it is quite surprising what insights can be gleaned from what at first appears to be random behavioural connections.

            50m is the given number harvested but that is based on the assumption of visible data only. If there is additional Facebook data found within Analytica, even if only for those 50m profiles, all hell is going to break loose.

          4. some old queen

            @ Andrew again.

            The first rule of security in IT is never assume anything. There has been mention of the dataset including private messages and email addresses – How? This could only happen if the system security was compromised or they were deliberately given access.

            Also, apologies to Dan for hijacking your post.

          5. Nigel

            Yes, I think striving to establish a double standard in the press treatment of a crowd who stole data versus a crowd who did not requires you to be very selective.

        2. Dan Boyle

          Hijack away. It’s better than being called names and accused of crimes against the State.

  3. ollie

    “We should value more our political system that still requires pen and paper to cast votes,”
    Tell me Dan, what was your stance on voting machines, you were a TD then, did you think that wasting €60 million was a good idea?

  4. nellyb

    Are we to assume Estonia is less democratic than us with their e-voting? ‘Pen and paper’ gave us embarrassing fairy circles talk in our national parlament OR bizarre ‘young people should stay away from politics’.
    It’s the who, not the how.

  5. Frilly Keane

    Pen and Paper voting means the Tally

    When they go
    Irish elections will wither away from the spectacle they are now

    BTW I would encourage everyone to attend or work at a count at least once in their lives

    1. ReproBertie

      Is it easy to get into that counting lark? Wouldn’t mind sitting in on the count at the LE’s next year.

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