How did embracing voter suppression techniques become respectable?

In the last edition of Island Tides, I wrote about the attempts at electoral fraud, the criminal actions, encompassed in the catch phrase the ‘robocalls scandal.’

The scandal has grown since then. We now have allegations of electoral crimes that go beyond phoning. In Eglinton-Lawrence, the Toronto riding in which Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver unseated Liberal incumbent Joe Volpe, it is alleged that close to 3,000 late-voter registrants were accepted without any proof of address, and in many cases, with no address at all. CBC-TVnews broke this story, leaving people wondering how such a thing could happen, with Elections Canada completely ignoring its statutory duties in this case.

In Vaughn, Ontario, a riding now held by Conservative Cabinet member Julian Fantino, three former members of the Conservative riding association have asked Elections Canada to investigate the existence of a second, non-reported, bank account. The three officials allege the fundraising chair said he had a secret account with $300,000 in it. It is alleged the secret account was used to help Conservative candidates in nine neighbouring ridings. This would be, obviously, completely illegal.

The allegations of attempts to harass or mislead by phone also continue to grow. Elections Canada now says over 30,000 people have contacted it with concerns. The trivial nature of some media coverage is very frustrating. Crimes were committed, and yet some in the media use words like ‘shenanigans.’ Kids sneaking into the neighbour’s yard to do some mischief might qualify as ‘shenanigans.’ Faking automated phone calls, or live calls, to thousands of people in a riding in an attempt to send voters who will not vote for your candidate to the wrong polling station is a crime for which the word ‘shenanigan’ does not apply.

I was taken aback by the defence offered by the Conservative Party in Saanich-Gulf Islands. In the March 7 edition of the Peninsula News, Bruce Hallsor, representing the Conservative Party in Saanich-Gulf Islands, was quoted saying such calls ‘would be the most ineffective method of voter suppression.’

His argument that his party was not responsible for the calls rests not on the fact that ‘voter suppression’ is unethical and anti-democratic, not that impersonating Elections Canada is illegal. He is quoted as saying ‘it is a ridiculous suggestion,’ because it would be the ‘most ineffective method of voter suppression.’

Do we then conclude the Conservative Party endorses only very effective methods of keeping citizens from exerting their right to vote?

The sad reality is that many political operatives in this country are impressed by the sophisticated ‘voter suppression’ techniques of the US Republican Party. The essence of the concept is that you can improve the vote for your party by getting supporters of other parties to stay home on Election Day. I realized that the Harper Conservatives had been doing this before I knew there was a name for it. In my last book, I described the various ways in which the Conservative Party had been driving down voter turnout. Only after it was published did a friend from the US who worked in the Obama campaign tell me that there was a name for the tactics I had seen deployed. And the name is ‘voter suppression.’

There are a large number of voter suppression techniques and most of them are not illegal. Stephen Harper has, for example, always chosen the shortest possible writ period. The shorter the writ period the less time there is for voters to become engaged. He has also, in 2008 and 2011, chosen voting days that drove down the student vote. In 2008, he did this by having the election early in the school fall term before any first years could have qualified for residency to vote on campus; and in 2011 by choosing a date in the midst of year-end exams.

In 2011, unlike 2008 when Stephen Harper was not responsible for which day his government fell, he did have the option of choosing an election date that allowed more than the legal minimum number of days. A longer writ period would have allowed for students to get home, as well as for some non-campaign time around the holy days of Easter and Passover.

But Stephen Harper does not want to encourage high voter turnout. He pushed through revisions to the Elections Act before 2008 that made it that much harder for people to vote, especially if low-income, First Nations, students or seniors. The requirement for a government-issued photo ID, including a current address, was a new rule and resulted in many Canadians losing their chance to vote.

The most offensive of the legal tactics is the use of attack ads. Negative advertising ‘works’ by discouraging supporters from voting for their traditional party. Running attack ads does nothing to increase the vote of the party paying for the ads. It is all about driving down the vote for the competition.

I have been putting forward a package of ‘Green Cleaning Solutions to Dirty Politics.’ The first step is a full inquiry into the crimes reported in the 2011 election. I am also pressing for the opening of the ‘cold case’ of electoral fraud in Saanich-Gulf Islands in 2008.

Beyond that, we need to expand the powers and resources of Elections Canada to investigate and report fully on complaints.

We should also ban the purchase of television advertising by any political party, or its third-party support groups, both during and outside of writ periods. Bans on television ads by political parties are in place in the UK, Belgium, Brazil, Israel, Switzerland and a number of other countries. Instead, the parties are allowed time in free access to the airwaves. The ban on TV ads allows for a more respectful presentation of policies, platforms and positions.

Citizens in this country need to demand a wholesale change in the current political climate. We need to condemn any party that thinks it is ethical (even if legal) to attempt, by any means, to reduce voter turnout. Any politician who embraces anti-democratic tactics should be ashamed. And, more to the point, should be removed from office.