Robocalls shock Canada

On May 2, 2011, Election Day, we had reports and complaints throughout the day that some voters had received bogus phone calls claiming to be from Elections Canada. The calls conveyed the information that a polling station had been moved and that the voter should instead go to… (fill in the blank). Elections Canada was very helpful in issuing a statement to the press to deny that it had made any such calls. Hourly newscasts throughout the day urged voters to ignore any phone messages and to, instead, rely upon the voting card received from Elections Canada in the mail.

Clearly, the voters of Saanich-Gulf Islands persisted in finding the correct polling station. A very impressive 75% of voters got to the polls in our riding. Other than one small riding in PEI, we had the highest level of voting of any riding in Canada.

Nevertheless, for the people I talked to on Election Day, who were frustrated and angry about being sent on a wild goose chase for their polling station, the matter was serious. I certainly took it seriously. Someone or some organization had made an effort to thwart citizens’ right to vote. This is a criminal offence under the Elections Act. It strikes to the heart of our democracy.

Once the election was over, as leader of the Green Party, I received reports from all over the country. It was clear that the use of misleading phone messages had been used in ridings across Canada. On May 19, 2011, I wrote the head of Elections Canada to request a full, independent inquiry into efforts to obstruct full, fair and free elections.

Who knows how long it would have remained invisible as an issue of concern? Fortunately, Stephen Maher, an impressive journalist who had recently left the Halifax Chronicle Herald to work for Postmedia, did what so few reporters do these days. He dug and dug to get at the truth. His story on the ‘robocalls’ was published February 24 in the Ottawa Citizen. In it, he documented not only that many ridings had been affected, he also explained how it was done. A company that does a lot of work for the Conservative Party, RackNine, had used cell-phone technology to deliver the socalled ‘robocalls’ into Guelph. The Ottawa Citizen story identified over two dozen ridings in which the black ops robocalls had been used.

The Conservatives put forward a young staffer who had been part of the Guelph campaign. His efforts in Guelph included the attempt to grab a ballot box and run off with it at an advance poll on the university campus. He claimed the returning officer had no right to make it possible for students to vote on a special day on campus. That one biographical note certainly suggests he was not impressed with the nearly sacred right of citizens to vote, but it is impossible that one person could have orchestrated the obstruction of the vote in so many ridings across Canada.

The scheme needed more than money. It needed lists of voters likely to support Liberals, New Democrats and Greens. And it needed to invent semiplausible poll locations in hundreds (thousands?) of locations. The ritual sacrifice of a young Conservative will not work in this case.

Since the publication of the story, many more ridings have been identified as places where such ‘voter suppression’ techniques were used. As well, an employee of a call-centre in Thunder Bay came forward to share her Election Day story. She and her colleagues were given a script to phone into ridings to tell people their polling station had changed and to give them a new location. The response from those she called—anger, indignation, protestation—made her suspect the script was wrong. She went to her supervisor who told her to keep calling. She called the RCMP.

In Parliament on February 27, I made a motion for an emergency debate on the allegations of election fraud. I also made a public call for a full, open, transparent, independent inquiry. The Speaker ruled against my motion—and a similar one from Liberal Leader Bob Rae—for an emergency debate.

I believe it is critical to get to the bottom of these serious charges. And I think voters in Saanich-Gulf Islands have a particular interest in the matter. I also think Saanich-Gulf Islands may have been the pilot project for robocall election fraud.

Think back to the 2008 election. The night before the vote, NDP supporters received automated message calls urging them to get out and vote. Although the NDP candidate was no longer in the race (he had withdrawn during the writ period), his name was still on the ballot.

The margin by which Liberal candidate Briony Penn lost was less than the total number of votes for a non-existent NDP candidate. Many people filed complaints. The matter was pursued aggressively by local public interest groups. But the RCMP and Elections Canada never got to the bottom of it. While many have suspicions of who was responsible, without evidence, without proof, whoever did it got away with a criminal offence.

I am arguing to national media that the Saanich-Gulf Islands 2008 example illustrates why we must have a full, independent inquiry with the powers of investigation necessary to find out who organized the scheme, who paid for it, and who knew about it. This electoral fraud may have altered the results of the 2011 election from a Conservative minority to a majority.

Election fraud is far more serious than the Sponsorship Scandal. That was about stealing money; this may be about stealing an election. We have a right to know.

Postscript to last edition’s column: I wrote about the Refugee Act, Bill C-4. Just after my column went to print, Minister of Immigration Jason Kenney introduced a new version of his bill. It is now C-31. The key change is that the bill will only jail children 16 and older, as well as their parents. It is not clear what they intend to do with children of refugee claimants under 16. I will keep working on these things.