Conservative robo-call scandal escalates

VANCOUVER, Canada – Evidence continues to mount that the Conservative Party of Canada committed widespread electoral fraud to win the 2011 elections.

Opposition parties and the media charged last week that automated phone calls flooded 70 ridings (electoral districts), and directed non-Conservative voters to non-existent polling stations to frustrate their intent to vote. Other calls were of a harassing nature intended to discourage support for a particular candidate. A good portion of these ridings saw narrow Conservative wins and the misleading, harassing phone calls may have ensured or helped the Conservatives win a majority government. The Conservatives won their majority by 6,201 votes in 14 ridings.

Elections Canada now reports that it has received 800 complaints about misleading phone calls from 200 ridings (out of 308) from all 10 provinces and one territory. In the Ontario riding of Guelph — which sparked wider awareness of the now dubbed “robo-calling scandal”  — Elections Canada traced the 7,000 false phone calls sent to rival voters to the Edmonton, Alberta-based company Racknine, which worked for the Conservative Party’s national campaign during the 2011 elections.

John Fryer, an adjunct professor of the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria, and a winner of the Order of Canada, claims that he attended a Conservative campaign school where it was taught that misleading phone calls to suppress voting were acceptable. 

Fryer said in January 2010 he received an e-mail invite from the Manning Centre for Democracy to attend a “campaign school.”

“Intrigued, I signed up for the three-day event. Topics covered included voter identification. Discussion ensued about suppression techniques. Instructors explained voter suppression tactics were borrowed from those used by the U.S. Republican Party,” wrote Fryer in a letter published by the Vancouver Sun and Globe and Mail newspapers. 

“Many kinds of suppression calls were canvassed. Another instructor gave detailed explanations of how robo-calls worked, techniques for recording messages plus costs involved. He distributed his business card upon request. Instructors made clear that robo-calling and voter suppression were perfectly acceptable and a normal part of winning political campaigns.

“The denials now expressed by the Prime Minister and his Parliamentary associates thus ring hollow if not something worse. Having attended this Campaign School it’s obvious that for Conservatives voter suppression strategies are standard in their playbook on how to conduct elections.

“Having thus lowered their standard of election ethics to that of their Republican cousins it is hardly surprising that the result is a so-called majority government that was voted for by 39% of the 61% who managed to get to their proper polling station. A majority government supported by a mere 26 percent of Canadians,” wrote Fryer.

In an interview with the Vancouver Observer, Fryer claims that in a question and answer session at the campaign school, attendees discussed voter suppression tactics. They talked about posing as a member of another party, and about making rude calls at inconvenient times as a strategy to get the supporter of another party to not go out and vote for their candidate. 

CBC news, a publicly-owned Canadian TV and radio network, examined 31 ridings where automated, misleading or harassing phone calls to non-Conservative voters were reported. They found a pattern:  “Those receiving those calls also had previous calls from the Conservative Party to find out which way they would vote.” 

Some voters told the CBC that they “googled” the callers numbers and discovered the calls came from the local Conservative Party campaign office.

Opposition leaders say the voter suppression scheme could not have been carried out without callers having access to the Conservative Party database on voters’ intentions. The Conservative Party is widely acknowledged to have the largest and most developed database on voters in Canada, identifying not only its own voters, but those of rival parties. 

Liberal and New Democratic Party (NDP) critics in Parliament say it would make no sense to call randomly because many of the voters would be Conservatives.  

Elizabeth May, federal Green Party leader and member of parliament (MP), claims she had informed Elections Canada about the false phone calls as far back as last May after thousands of voters complained to her about receiving the calls.  

The MP is demanding “jail time” for “those who have conducted such egregious fraudulent calls.”

She also wants the political party found to be responsible for the false phone calls to have their financial rebates withdrawn. Political parties that obtain a certain percentage of the vote can have up to 60% of their expenses refunded via Elections Canada and 50% nationally.

“Combined, this amounts to tens of millions of dollars for the Conservative Party. Only through such strong measures will we create a meaningful deterrent to these actions,” May says.

The Greens, along with the NDP, Liberals, Communists and Bloc Quebecios are pushing for a public inquiry into the false phone calls.

The Conservatives, who have denied involvement in organizing the automated calls, have so far refused to form a public inquiry on the issue.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand, who heads Elections Canada, which is investigating the robo-calls with the assistance of the Royal Canadian Mounted police, speaking at a parliamentary committee in Ottawa last week, accused the Conservatives of playing a “numbers game” by trying to minimize the false phone calls.

Conservative MPs on the committee suggested many of those 800 false phone calls in the 200 ridings might have been simple mistakes. 

“There is a numbers game going on,” he said. “The important thing to know is that some people were deliberately misled in a bid to stop them from voting,” he said.

Elections Canada also announced it discovered that Conservative operative Pierre Poutine, in the riding of Guelph, had planned to send thousands of harassing phone calls, in the name of Liberal Party election workers, to Liberal voters to discourage them from voting. 

The Council of Canadians, a public advocacy group, is taking the federal government to the Federal Court of Canada to have the election results annulled in seven ridings where the automated calls may have determined the final results. All the ridings, but one, were won by Conservatives by fewer than 1,000 votes. 

Meanwhile, thousands attended rallies across Canada on March 31 to protest the Conservative election fraud in the 2011 elections.  

Photo: Peter Blanchard/CC