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The trouble was that West had withdrawn from the race.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.”