VANCOUVER, B.C. - The United States and Mexico have not been the only places where the right wing has committed electoral fraud to win recent elections.
There is evidence to suggest the Conservative Party of Canada used voter suppression schemes to help it win the 2011 elections.
While ballot boxes didn't actually go missing, the Conservatives may have flooded ridings (electoral districts) with automated, pre-recorded phone messages designed to disfranchise supporters of rival candidates.
In the Ontario riding of Guelph, it is alleged by Elections Canada, the country's election authority, that a Conservative operative using the alias "Pierre Poutine" made automated calls to suppress votes.
During the 2011 elections, there was a tight race between the leading Conservative and Liberal Party candidates. False messages, supposedly from Elections Canada, sent hundreds of rival non-Conservative voters chasing non-existent polling stations on Election Day.The theory behind the automated calls was that voters who ended up in the wrong place were usually unlikely to persist in finding another polling station and gave up trying to cast a ballot.
Despite the false phone calls, however, Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote beat Conservative challenger Marty Burke by a comfortable margin.
Now opposition parties and the media allege, based on a deluge of complaints from voters, that phony automated messages supposedly from Elections Canada were also aimed at voters in 70 other ridings (out of 308).
Some of the phone calls were sending voters to non-existent polling stations while others were of a harassing nature. In the Toronto riding of Eglinton-Lawrence last year, the Liberal Party alleges that hundreds of its supporters were called at inconvenient hours -- late night, supper time or on the Sabbath for Jewish voters by people representing themselves as Liberal Party workers.
Long-time Liberal MP Joe Volpe, who was defeated in the closely fought Toronto riding, complained that voters were inundated with harassing and repetitive phone calls falsely made in his campaign's name. His call display indicated the calls originated from North Dakota. Volpe wonders if the harassing phone calls cost him his seat in Parliament.
The Liberals are conducting their own investigation into what has been dubbed "the robo-calling scandal", finding witnesses and gathering evidence. Party leader Bob Rae claims that some of his party's candidates lost the election because of the automated phone calls. The New Democrat Party (NDP) and the Liberals have compiled examples from about 30 ridings where the automated message was identical: a call purporting to be from Elections Canada falsely informing the listener that their polling station was changed due to high voter turnout.
Elections Canada has traced the misleading phone calls in Guelph to Racknine, an Edmonton-based call center that worked for the Conservative Party's national campaign during the 2011 elections. While the company's owner said he was unaware that his business was used for fake calls, he said they sent out 10 million or more calls for the Conservatives during the last elections.
Elections Canada received over 700 complaints from voters across the country regarding the use of fraudulent, misleading or harassing phone calls during the 2011 election campaign. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are assisting the Agency in their investigation and have already approached Conservative party officials.
Since a good portion of the 70 ridings saw narrow Conservative victories, the misleading automated phone messages may have given or at least helped them win a majority government in Parliament with only 39.6 percent of voter support.
Prior to the elections, the Conservative Party had a minority government and was forced to make compromises with other parties in Parliament. The Conservatives are widely acknowledged to have the largest and most developed data base on voters in Canada, identifying not only it's own supporters but those of rival parties.
Ian Brodie, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's former Chief of Staff from 2006-2008, told the Globe and Mail (March 17) that the Ontario riding of Guelph indicates "a very devious local effort that could well lead to charges against several campaign volunteers." But he did not deny the possibility "of a national effort at subterfuge. Something seems to have gone on, on a scale l've never seen before."
Globe and Mail columnist Lawrence Martin suggests that fraudulent phone calls may have also been used in the 2008 federal elections. During a closely contested battle between the Liberal and Conservative candidates in the Saanich-Gulf Island riding, an automated message flooded the riding urging people to vote for the NDP candidate who had already dropped out of the race, but his name remained on the ballot.
On Election Day, the NDP received 3,667 votes, or 6 percent of the vote. "This was good news for Mr. Lunn (the Conservative candidate). The bulk of those votes might otherwise have gone to the Liberal candidate, who lost to Mr. Lunn by 2,625," writes Martin in his Mar. 1 column. According to Martin, the automated phone calls were traced to the U.S.
Opposition parties, inside and outside Parliament, have condemned the robo-calling and are calling for an independent inquiry into the issue. "It is no exaggeration to state that 2011 election was stolen from Canadian voters, a vote fatally tainted by criminal tactics, " charges Communist Party of Canada (CPC) leader Miguel Figueroa. "Voter suppression has since become a key weapon in the arsenal of right-wing political forces in North America, including the Conservative Party, which has close links with the Republicans. The aim is to discourage as many people as possible from casting a ballot, making it easier for the wealthy and for highly-committed far-right groups to exercise political influence far beyond their actual level of public support. Right-wing parties like the Tories understand that victory requires mobilizing their own pro-corporate and far-right base while demobilizing the majority of the population. They want lower voter turnouts on election day, not higher." As well as supporting calls for an independent inquiry, the CPC is demanding new federal elections.
NDP Member of Parliament (MP) Pat Martin is critical of Conservative speaker Andrew Scheer's decision to limit discussion on the robo calling scandal in Parliament, blocking certain critical questions from being asked.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has denied his party's involvement behind the misleading phone messages that sent rival voters to false polling stations. Harper's Conservatives have also lashed out at opposition parties, accusing them of using similar tactics against some Conservative candidates during the 2011 elections. However, Conservative MPs supported an NDP motion to strengthen Election Canada's investigative powers to find the guilty party.
The latest scandal puts the Conservatives again at loggerheads with Elections Canada which alleges that the Conservatives have broken other election laws, such as ignoring spending caps on election spending in the 2006 federal elections that saw them come to power. Last year, the Conservatives pleaded guilty in court to overspending on advertising.
The automated, misleading phone calls are seen by critics as only part of a continued effort by Conservatives Party to suppress the vote of rival parties and maintain and strengthen their control over Parliament.
Last year, the Conservatives introduced identification requirements that are not easily met by low income people who are more likely to vote for left wing parties.
Those not on the voters list need to show one document with their name and address, such as a phone bill or driver's license or have a family member or neighbor vouch for them.
The Conservatives claimed they increased ID requirements to guard against voter fraud. Critics allege that these new requirements barred tens of thousands of low-income voters from casting a ballot in 2011. Low-income voters, some of whom move around more often and may not have a phone or a car, have a harder time obtaining documents with their name and address or a witness.
Tens of thousands of students and homeless people lack necessary ID with a street address. Most people living in rural areas and aboriginals living on reserves only have a postal box. Post election surveys have revealed that 5 percent of registered voters do not vote because they lack proper identification.
A former Elections Canada employee, who wished to remain anonymous, and who worked in a Vancouver riding polling station during the October 2008 elections, told this reporter of witnessing top officials actively discouraging poor voters from casting a ballot.
"People with no fixed address were not properly informed of what ID they needed to be eligible to vote."
The source said that people with no fixed address just need a family member or neighbor to vouch for them but they were not informed of this option. "They were sent home to retrieve documents that were not needed to frustrate their intent to vote. They targeted voters who looked poor because theses voters are more likely to vote for the left instead of the Conservatives", said the source. "In the advance polls, l witnessed top officials preventing at least 35 voters from voting a day over 3 days."
Photo: Grant Neufeld // CC 2.0