Tuesday, May 28, 2024
Democracy & GovernmentOpinion/Column

If you can’t quantify it, you must qualify it

No math was used in drawing conclusions on Foreign Interference

“I can conclude with confidence that the Liberal Party would have been in government with or without foreign interference in 2019 and 2021.”

–Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue, writing in the Initial Report of the Foreign Interference Commission

After a close brush on a hiking trail in 2018, I designed and began selling an inexpensive “Bear Bell” for dogs. The goal is to provide generally-shy Ontario black bears (and skunks, and porcupines) enough warning to hear the dogs and move away before they come face-to-face. Dog owners have bought lots of them.

RWN/Taxi News publisher Rita Smith

My son David once asked, “How do you know your Bear Bells work?”

“Well, when the dogs wear the bells, we never see a bear. The only time we’ve actually seen a bear was when they were not wearing their bells.”

“By that logic,” he observed, “My Dragon Bells are working just as well to keep dragons away.”

“I never claim the bells will keep bears away,” I sighed. “I only say they provide warning, which is a supportable statement.”

He had a fair point. Proving a negative is difficult, if not impossible: maybe my bells work great. Maybe there are no bears. How could anyone know?

***

Canada’s Foreign Interference Commission (FIC) provided a scathing interim report on May 3rd. Commissioner Marie-Josée Hogue found that foreign entities including China have interfered with Canada’s election process.

However, she hastens to assure concerned citizens that although interference definitely took place, this interference definitely did not impact the outcome of the election.

“Acts of foreign interference did occur during the last two federal general elections, but they did not undermine the integrity of our electoral system,” Justice Hogue said in a press release on May 3rd. “Our system remains sound. Voters were able to cast their ballots, their votes were duly registered and counted and there is nothing to suggest that there was any interference whatsoever in this regard. Nor did foreign interference have any impact on which party formed the government in the two most recent elections.”

As a copywriter, this seemed to me to be a very bold, wholly unqualified statement: “Nor did foreign interference have any impact on which party formed the government in the two most recent elections.”

How could anyone know?

Given that Canadian elections are a hugely math-based system, from the drawing of riding boundaries to the counting of the last ballot and the seat count in the House of Commons, I assumed Commissioner Hogue’s strident statement would have been based on some kind of mathematical evidence. She and her team must have run the important numbers – including the number of ridings that the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service (CSIS) report experienced foreign interference, the margin of victory at the riding levels as well as nationally, the number of mail-in ballots that went missing (210,000) and other key measures.

Their number-crunching would have resulted in some kind of quantifiable measure or perhaps a range of measures based on defined assumptions, providing her with the facts needed to state unequivocally, “Foreign interference did not have any impact on which party formed the government in the two most recent elections.”

Curious, I wrote the Commission and asked for the mathematical assumptions used to make this determination. Elections predictions websites and numerous polling firms have developed finely-tuned algorithms for attributing votes to each of the ridings under a variety of scenarios. I wondered if the Foreign Interference Commission had worked with any of these elections-math experts in reaching its May 3rd conclusions.

Bear Bell math is pretty simple: if you meet zero bears, we can assume the bell worked successfully. If you meet even one bear, we must assume the bell failed. Elections math is more complicated; but you can’t declare unqualified victory when you know there has been cheating, if you have no measure of the cheating. Photo: Ernst Fredrichs

So, I was surprised at the reply I received from Senior Communications Advisor Michael Tansey on May 5th:

“The Commission did not use algorithms or mathematical equations to reach its conclusions. I would refer you to page 28 of the Commission’s report:

‘Attempting to measure the impact of foreign interference on an electoral outcome is inherently difficult. It is generally impossible to draw a straight line between a particular incident and the outcome of an election, just as it is to assess how the varied, often subtle, foreign activities impacted the final seat count in the House of Commons.

‘However, I can conclude with confidence that the Liberal Party would have been in government with or without foreign interference in 2019 and 2021.’”

This apparently incontrovertible statement has been issued as part of the initial report; the full report is not due until December 31st, 2024. Only four months into a year-long process, Hogue has already been able to “conclude with confidence that the Liberal Party would have been in government with or without foreign interference in 2019 and 2021.”

What’s more, on May 7th Dominic LeBlanc, Safety and Democratic Institutions Minister Dominic tabled legislation in the House of Commons. Bill C-70, the “Countering Foreign Interference Act,” is almost 100 pages long and proposes to enact a new “Foreign Influence Transparency and Accountability Act.”

It’s impressive, that Minister LeBlanc doesn’t even need to wait for Hogue’s final report to write his legislation. Optimistic Canadians might hope this means he is taking Foreign Interference very seriously.

A skeptical person might wonder if the Liberals already have everything they need from this Commission and are ready to move on.

I agree that math is hard. Measuring things is “inherently difficult, if not generally impossible.” Commissioner Hogue cannot be expected to count invisible dragons.

But then, neither should she be able to make explicit, unequivocal statements about the number of ridings the Liberals would have won without foreign interference. How could anyone know?

The unqualified certainty of Hogue’s very early statement, and the speed with which the Liberals are acting, should make alarm bells ring.

Here is some of Canada’s most interesting elections math: all of these individuals, residents of the Vancouver area, donated the legal limit to Justin Trudeau’s riding association in Papineau, Quebec the day before deadline in 2016. What are the odds? Data: Elections Canada