The Chief Electoral Officer responds

Yesterday I complained that Nova Scotia’s Chief Electoral Officer, Christine McCulloch, had impaired the usefulness of her annual tally of political donations by rendering them impossible to search electronically. Ms. McCulloch responds:

I make no apology for doing our utmost to protect the privacy of Nova Scotians while meeting the obligation of full disclosure of political contributions required under the Members and Public Employees Disclosure Act (MPEDA).

The purpose of the disclosure provision of MPEDA is to provide everyone with access to the identity of contributors to recognized parties and candidates and how much they have contributed. That is met in our print report, available free of charge to anyone on request, and in portable document file format (pdf) on our website. There is no requirement under MPEDA to make it available in a searchable or downloadable form for the convenience of journalists or others. In fact, the Nova Scotia government website privacy policy expressly forbids bulk downloading of personal information from a government website.

There may have been a time, when corporations, partnerships and other organizations were permitted to make contributions without limits on the amount, when the analysis of the list of contributors in relation to lists of companies awarded public tenders may have served a purpose. Since the restriction of political contributions to individuals and a limit of $5,000 per individual, such a comparison is impossible and irrelevant. It is very easy to see who has made the greatest contribution to a candidate or party by looking down the amount column. Finding an individual is also relatively simple as the lists are arranged alphabetically.

While not perfect, the Elections Nova Scotia’s publication of contributions as a free book as well as on the Internet fully meets the disclosure requirement while protecting contributors from “data-mining” as far as is practicable.

You know you’re swimming uphill when an official reply to a complaint begins, “I make no apology for…” But Christine McCulloch’s response is disheartening on several levels.

First, “doing our utmost to protect the privacy of Nova Scotians” may be someone’s role, but it’s not the Chief Electoral Officer’s mandate. Her overriding focus should be to ensure that elections are funded and conducted in a manner that is open, transparent, accountable, and fair to all. Competing values such as privacy are, if not incidental, at least secondary. She has her priorities backwards.

Second, her assertion that the contribution limit of $5000 has rendered concern about potential influence peddling “irrelevant” is astonishing. Why bother reporting contributions at all if that’s the case?

Third, Ms. McCulloch seems oblivious to Nova Scotia’s storied history of political corruption, conceding only that “there may have been a time” when comparing contributions and government contracts served a purpose. In the not too distant past, comparing contracts and contributions served the purpose of sending Clarence McFadden and  J.G. “Suitcase” Simpson to prison in Nova Scotia’s notorious liquor toll-gating scandal. There’s no maybe about it, and the Chief Electoral Officer of all people ought to be aware of this.

Finally, Ms. McCulloch takes the position that delving into public data in any way beyond what was possible 50 or 100 years ago is a thing to be feared by the citizenry and thwarted by officials. She expects us to content ourselves with data presentation in the format of a 1950’s phone book.

The Chief Electoral Officer really needs to think this through more deeply. The last 30 years have produced a cornucopia of digital tools with enormous citizen-empowering potential. Who knows what sort of mash-ups might be possible with the data trapped within Ms. McCulloch’s locked pdf? Maybe some sharp student in the Community College’s geomantics program could produce heat maps showing which parts of the province donate to which party. Maybe cross-referencing postal code income data with donations or other demographic information will reveal trends and implications we can’t detect from her 50s phone-book approach. Maybe something even better that she and I can’t conceive of because no one has done it yet.

Ironically, Ms. McCullough’s approach precludes this digital bounty while enabling most of the evils she conjures. It won’t stop an unscrupulous employer from identifying and intimidating employees who donate to the wrong party. But it will stop inventive students, journalists, researchers, social and scientists from making the most imaginative, productive, and empowering use of the information she has gathered.