Virtual Voting Virtually Works

In a historic first on Monday night, the House of Commons held their first virtual vote on a sub amendment to the Speech from the Throne. The good news? It only took two hours. The vote comes after months of on and off wrangling amongst parties to determine how Parliament might return safely during the coronavirus pandemic. Although Parliament is supposedly a workplace like any other, not many workplaces feature a convention of 338+ Canadians in one room before allowing them to spread out to every corner of the country. And so, hybrid voting was born, and with it, significant procedural challenges.

To have their votes counted, MPs need to speak slowly and clearly, and ensure the all-powerful Zoom algorithms have chosen to fixate on the correct MP’s face to broadcast their screen throughout the chamber as they vote. Any small sound can flip the screen to another MP, which has led to parliamentary hilarity like images of Pierre Poilievre kissing his son while members voted, and the broadcast of a lovely bedtime story as told by Nathaniel Erskine-Smith.

As fun as these stories sound, the reality of distance voting is serious business. Ensuring all MPs have an equal opportunity to participate in debates and votes in the House is a cornerstone of Canada’s representative democracy. Even small mistakes, like misidentifying a speaker, can cause major confusion, and given the significant digital divide in Canada between urban and rural broadband internet access, MPs with a weak internet connection run the risk of being unheard, effectively disenfranchising their constituents. The opposition was rightly wary of such a voting system pushed by the government, particularly in a minority situation where every vote is crucial. Conservative MPs have been steadfast in their belief that MPs must stand and be held accountable for their votes in the House, something that is far harder to do in a virtual setting. This accountability might not be as elusive in a hybrid model as Conservatives think, however, given that each MP had 20 seconds of screen time on average to vote, more than a voice vote in-person would afford them. Preference for a sitting model really does seem to come down to party politics.

For all the technicalities, hilarity, annoyances, and honest-to-goodness constitutional issues that can come from virtual voting, we must bear in mind that the method is here to stay until a vaccine is developed, or until the Prime Minister’s next ethics scandal forces another prorogation. So, not very long at all.