Before it even began, the Munk Debate that pitted former Trump strategist Steve Bannon against conservative commentator David Frum was already steeped in controversy.
Now there’s even more.
The Munk Debates announced on Saturday morning that they made a “technical error” in delivering the results of Friday night’s faceoff between Bannon and Frum after initially announcing that the latter had lost when it had actually been a draw.
The debate had already faced criticism, with calls to cancel the event amid protests over Bannon’s involvement, including a raucous rally outside Roy Thomson Hall that resulted in the arrest of 12 people.
The Munk Debates typically begin with a vote asking the audience to choose whether they are for or against the question at hand. They also ask whether the audience members are open to changing their votes after listening to the debate. At the end, a final vote is done with the same initial for-or-against question. The debater who swayed votes to their side wins.
At the end of Friday’s event, they asked the audience whether “the future of western politics is populist, not liberal.” The now-incorrect results showed a clear win for Bannon at 57 per cent in favour and 43 per cent against — a far cry from the corrected tally posted Saturday morning of 28 per cent in favour and 72 per cent opposed, resulting in a draw.
“The system involves various people talking behind the scenes,” said Rudyard Griffiths, chairman of The Munk Debates in an interview with the Star. “There’s one person that’s managing the live poll, that person is communicating with another person who is entering it into a slide, and then another operator is collecting those slides that are displayed on the screen in the hall. So there’s a lot of different moving pieces.”
Instead of presenting the numbers in the final vote at Friday’s debate, the tally from the question about whether or not the person’s opinion could be swayed were shown on stage — incorrectly stating that Bannon had won over Frum.
It was also The Munk Debates’ first time collecting votes electronically, having used paper ballots in the past, Griffiths added. They will conduct an internal report into how the error was made and how a mistake like this could be prevented.
Organizers caught on to the error about five to 10 minutes after the final announcement, but it was too late.
“By the time the error had been identified and brought to my attention, the people who were in the hall had left,” Griffiths said. “Some had remained for a post-debate reception and we were able to communicate the results to those people.”
They posted an update to their Facebook page after the debate. On Saturday morning, they sent an email to their members and posted the correction on Twitter.
While votes tend to sway after debates, draws are not unheard of, Griffiths said.
“You’re also talking about a sample of roughly 2,800 people,” Griffiths said. “Some people may change their mind, but other people on the other side may change their minds also. So even though someone’s changed their vote, the net effect of that on the results is negligible.”
People were also entering the debate late and missed the vote on the initial questions, having been delayed by the protest outside.
J.P. Luisi, who attended the debate, was surprised that the corrected results did not yield a clear winner.
“My wife and a few other people that I spoke to changed their vote at the end, so it seemed odd that statistically there wouldn’t be a change,” Luisi said. “It’s like flipping a coin. Theoretically it could land on its edge, but chances are that it will be heads or tales.”
Luisi said the audience seemed shocked at the now-incorrect results announced onstage, especially considering the unexpectedly large swing.
“There was some murmuring in the crowd briefly and then people afterwords were saying that they were surprised that there was such a change,” Luisi said. “Even people that voted for Bannon were surprised that he would have changed opinion that much.”
David Frum posted The Munk Debates’ correction on Twitter.
Stefanie Marotta is a breaking news reporter, working out of the Star’s radio room in Toronto. Follow her on Twitter: @StefanieMarotta