Robocalls pioneered in B.C. during the 2008 federal election

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      On the eve of the 2008 federal election, many voters in Saanich–Gulf Islands received a strange phone call. It was a recorded voice, and it asked them to vote for the NDP’s Julian West.

      The trouble was that West had withdrawn from the race. The other problem was that the call didn’t come from the NDP, because the party no longer had an official candidate. On election day, 3,667 votes were cast for West, whose name remained on the ballot.

      Briony Penn remembers the events very clearly. As the Liberal party’s candidate in that election, she came close to defeating then-incumbent Conservative MP Gary Lunn. The margin of victory was only 2,625 votes.

      “It was less than the votes that went to the nonexistent candidate,” Penn told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview. “It could have had an effect, of course.”

      The environmental activist believes that Saanich–Gulf Islands was a testing ground for misleading robocalls, a vote-suppressing tactic suspected to have been used by the Conservative campaign in dozens of ridings across Canada in the 2011 federal election.

      “It all started here,” Penn said.

      Robocalls are at the centre of a growing scandal that has started to cast some doubts about the legitimacy of the majority mandate won by Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservatives in the last election.

      What outrages Penn is that Elections Canada could have stopped the practice of using false automated phone messages had it got to the bottom of a complaint filed by her party.

      “None of this today would have happened if we had had an Elections Canada that had properly investigated, had clamped [down] on any of the loopholes if they indeed even existed,” the Salt Spring Island resident said. “Why is it that we can uncover spy rings and WikiLeaks can do this, and we can’t find one little source of a robocaller? I mean that was ridiculous. We don’t know what the investigation consisted of. And we can’t get that information.”

      In a March 2, 2009, letter to the Liberal party’s riding association in Saanich–Gulf Islands, Elections Canada stated that it found neither the source of the calls nor anyone whose vote was influenced because of a telephone call they received.

      Penn suggested that it’s not a stretch to think that the results of the 2011 election may have been different were it not for the robocalls that misinformed voters about the location of polling stations. “I don’t think it’s an unfair statement to say that it could have an impact on the outcome,” she said.

      The activist group Leadnow has noted that robocalls appear to have been designed to stop non-Conservative voters from casting their ballots in 18 to 27 ridings in 2011. It also pointed out that, in 14 closely contested ridings, Conservatives narrowly won with a total of only 6,201 combined votes.

      From a minority government holding 143 out of the 308 seats in the House of Commons following the October 14, 2008, election, Harper’s Conservatives seized majority control in the May 2, 2011, election with 166 seats.

      Elections Canada spokesperson Diane Benson told the Straight by phone that the agency doesn’t grant interviews regarding complaints and investigations. In his post-2011 election report to Parliament, chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand stated that the election watchdog was investigating “crank calls designed to discourage voting, discourage voting for a particular party, or incorrectly advise electors of changed polling locations”.

      After the 2011 election, Green MP Elizabeth May, who defeated Lunn in Saanich–Gulf Islands, wrote to Elections Canada about a “serious breach of the Canada Elections Act”. May claimed that, on election day, “Canadians from coast to coast reported receiving bogus calls misdirecting them to the wrong polling stations”.

      Ottawa-based Democracy Watch believes that robocalls are the tip of the iceberg when it comes to suspected electoral wrongdoings. “This could be one of many situations that come to light now, and basically calls into question whether Elections Canada has been doing their job,” Democracy Watch coordinator Tyler Sommers told the Straight in a phone interview.

      Last year, Democracy Watch revealed that Elections Canada did not report how it investigated and ruled on 2,284 various election-related complaints it received since 2004.

      “There are many situations like what you’re mentioning, which raises serious questions about whether federal elections have been conducted fairly since 2004,” he said.

      Meanwhile, Penn is appalled that she and her colleagues still have no idea how their complaint was investigated by Elections Canada. “We don’t have a democracy anymore,” she said. “I’m sorry, but we just don’t.”



      Mar 1, 2012 at 7:40am

      That the election was tampered with brings into serious questions the Harper majority's legitimacy.
      Regardless of who is found to have pulled the strings in this affair ernor-
      the election is substantially tainted.
      For the Harper government to continue governing under such circumstances is unthinkable.

      The Governor General must summons Mr. Harper to Rideau Hall - and implore that he do what is necessary for the sake of Canada's people
      and our sterling reputation among democracies.

      Should Mr.Harper fail to do the only honorable thing The Senate should refuse to pass any bills sent by his government to their august house.
      To do otherwise would further damage our system of government and stature among nations - and answer the national question on the worth
      of their house. That worth can be proven by non-partisan action now.

      Those former Progressive Conservatives can redeem their place of honour in history by taking back their party - by ending a coalition which has brought them mostly ignominy and reasserting the Progressive Conservative party.

      These are the acts Canadians feared from those self-anointed arbiters of individual and national virtue on the evangelical far right -
      and rendered the Reform Alliance unelectable under its own banner.

      Elections Canada is bound by the letter of the law.
      The Senate represents the higher purpose of the law - its spirit.
      The Progressive Conservatives were- and can be - worthy of that cause.
      Please, may it be made so.


      Mar 1, 2012 at 9:41am

      Very interesting article on Postmedia.

      Especially the last few paragraphs which might contain an explanation for the fact that Elections Canada is looking for a new Commissioner. EC's site says applications were/are being accepted for the position from mid-Feb to Mar 2, 2012.

      This might be why:
      On Tuesday, the procedure and house affairs committee tabled a report in response to the post-election report of Marc Mayrand, chief electoral officer.

      After the recent election, Mayrand sought to enhance the agency's power to examine documents that support the expenses that political parties claim in election campaigns, which would allow investigators and officials to get a better picture of how campaigns are run.

      The vote on that motion was defeated in a secret vote earlier in February, which means MPs can't discuss it publicly, but sources say the NDP and Liberals voted to enhance the
      agency's powers but the Conservatives, who have a majority on the committee, voted against.

      The Conservatives have so far declined to make public records that would show how much they paid to their robocall and call bank service providers during the last election.

      Asked about the matter, Del Mastro said in question period on Wednesday that "the Conservative Party of Canada always provides all documents requested by Elections Canada.

      Not sounding good at all. Why would the Conservatives be against giving more powers of investigation to Elections Canada when they are all for more powers of investigation for the police in general (C-30)? And why are they refusing to disclose the documents about robocall payments and call centres?

      Yeah, yeah, we can all figure out those answers. We need a public inquiry that is able to require the government to comply with requests for documents, etc ... otherwise this practice will simply keep growing and we may as well stop calling ourselves a democracy and (in particular) stop sending Canadians to oversee other fledgling democracies' elections, since we can't seem to keep our own on the up and up.


      Mar 1, 2012 at 10:15am

      <a href="">Voter Suppression Tactics</a> are just another term for Negative Campaign Tactics that conservatives have been using, successfully, around the world for decades. Here are some statistics to reference, pertaining to the current furor over RoboCalls:

      <a href=" Index: A number is never just a number</a>

      Jack Layton was the first Progressive politician to successfully counter these conservative Voter Suppression Tactics intended to suppress the NDP's base of Women, Youth and Minority votes. His Campaign Director, <a href="">Brian Topp</a> is the only candidate in the NDP Leadership race, who not only understands these tactics, but knows how to counter them as well.

      That tired old tactic of the NDP moving to centre, an apologist tactic, that abandons NDP values, was disproven by Jack Layton this past election as well. Whether it is conservatives or progressives, moving to the centre only dilutes one's values and loses votes.

      Barney Fife

      Mar 1, 2012 at 10:55am

      Nothing will come of this or any other scandal involving the Conservative Reform Alliance Party.
      It may be more positive to put the energy into defeating them in the next election and finding a leader that can do just that.

      Mark Fornataro

      Mar 1, 2012 at 2:02pm

      Robocalls will be the subject on Cross Country Checkup, CBC Radio One this Sunday afternoon after the 1:00PM news. Hopefully they will interview Briony Penn as well as ask Elections Canada and the RCMP why those organizations haven't been dealing with this problem since 2008.


      Mar 1, 2012 at 5:00pm

      Did Harper "get to" Elections Canada the way he got to the former GG?


      Mar 2, 2012 at 5:25pm

      Barney Fife:
      "It may be more positive to put the energy into defeating them in the next election and finding a leader that can do just that".

      If there is another election......all Harper needs is his equivalent of the Reichstag fire in Berlin in 1933:

      Barney Fife

      Mar 3, 2012 at 9:28am


      yep ; )

      Tim M

      Mar 8, 2012 at 6:41am

      Briony Penn wrote a more complete version of this story, which I read in The Ottawa Citizen this week.

      In her column, Briony wrote that NDP candidate Julian West dropped out of the race a week before the election. According to Elections Canada, a candidate can withdraw from a race only before the close of the nomination period, which was two weeks earlier. Julian West remained an official candidate in every way, because he could not legally withdraw.

      If nothing else the story shows that do-it-yourself parliamentary reform is a recipe for failure. I think it also shows another example of the Liberals' sense of entitlement. Why didn't Briony withdraw, before the deadline for nominations, and leave the field open for Julian West?