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What I Learned This Week: The Precarious Future of Voting

04/14/2014 12:34 EDT | Updated 06/14/2014 05:59 EDT

Well, cross another one off the bucket list, as last Monday I made my debut as a TV political commentator.

The occasion was a momentous one -- the most recent Quebec election, one which saw the governing PQ swept out by a massive Liberal tidal wave following a most unpleasant and dirty campaign. My co-commentators on CTV were polar opposites -- Peter Trent, Mayor of the upscale Montreal-area enclave called Westmount, and Gilles Duceppe, sovereignist hardliner and former head of the Bloc Quebecois -- and sitting/bickering in between them was an emotion-filled blast.

Given my career path and my reputation, the aforementioned gig seems strange and incongruous. But those who know me know my political passion, especially these days as Quebec and Montreal try to redefine their places in a rapidly-changing world. A frequent dinner guest is friend Mutsumi Takahashi, CTV's long-time news anchor here, and after countless political chin-wags, she lobbied for me to take them off the dining room table and onto the airwaves. We started with a weekly news segment that positioned me as a calmly-blustery businessman, and paid it all off with the election night free-for-all five weeks later.

Now there were many lessons learned that night; mostly poli-sci macro lessons on the ineffectiveness of divisive, negative, campaigning and the collective want of all Quebecois for a stable government, social peace and increased prosperity.

But what was most fascinating for me was working with CTV's team of "election experts," a roving bunch of pollsters and mathematical geniuses who travel from province to province to nation's capital every time the populace is put to a vote. Even while I was eating dinner in the newsroom while the polls were still open, the team leader came over to me to show me why, statistically, the PQ couldn't win.

So follow me on this for a bit, because the point still needs a few paragraphs of set-up.

Just a few seconds before going to air, the team leader came over to our commentator's desk, leaned in and said: "It's a Liberal win. We're going to be calling it in about 45 minutes, but we don't know if it's a minority or majority. Just wanted you to know, but don't give it away or be obvious about it."

And then we were live.

And we didn't need 45 minutes, either. A mere 18 minutes after going on air, CTV officially announced a Liberal victory; 19 minutes later, at the 36-minute mark, it was all over. Whopping majority, with the only question of "How big?" to be decided.

Given the early outcome, to kill time between our segments, we compared actual riding-by-riding results to a chart of predictions I had printed from the website tooclosetocall.ca. Like a Canadian Nate Silver (he of fivethirtyeight.com fame, successfully forecasting the result of all 50 states in the last American Presidential race), blogger/statistician Bryan Breguet ran 5,000 simulations and came up with percentage-based positioning of all parties in all 125 ridings. While he was far from Silver perfect, given the massive upset nature of the night's vote, his calling 109 correctly was still impressive as hell.

So...here's where I was going.

Given the CTV team's precision, given Breguet's prognostication prowess, and given the fact that we had 3.5-hours of airtime to fill after the main question was answered (don't worry, characters and conflict made for great TV all night long), I wondered to myself whether or not the entire voting process was outdated.

Just before the election, I read an article about how governments are wary of the problems associated with the "next step" of elections, namely e-voting. But my point goes further -- given the accuracy of the simulations, polling and other mathematical tools, is a series of statistically-significant surveys enough to elect our next wave of public leaders?

In other words, do we need the laborious process of voting at all?

Granted, things aren't perfect yet. Given the recent surprise election results in Alberta and BC, there is always the chance for errors and upsets. But the "Dewey Defeats Truman"-level miscalculations are less and less likely, and given the rapid advance of computing and that each error only serves to make today's predictive algorithms smarter, will a few thousand randomly-accessed people be all we need to decide our upcoming elections?

Not right away, but what I gleaned on Monday night is that the day is not far off. So this week's learning, in keeping with this post's theme, is more of a tomorrow prediction than a yesterday lesson, namely:

Brace yourself for a seismic shift as polls and simulations replace the ballot box in 15 years.

So hey there, Peter and Gilles...ready to regroup and have a go at this one?