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Targeting vote suppression calls in the 2011 telephone fraud

Photo: Flickr/Adam Scotti

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On May 2, 2011, the election day whose outcome gave Stephen Harper's Conservatives a parliamentary majority, journalists observed that the ridings from which reports of fraudulent misinformation calls were coming in seemed not to be a random set. As Kirk Makin wrote in The Globe and Mail, "The false messages appeared to be clustered primarily in ridings where a close race was anticipated, meaning a small swing in voting preferences could mean the margin between victory and defeat." 

It subsequently emerged that there were exceptions to this pattern: ridings, for example, in which, though Conservatives won by wide margins, misinformation calls nonetheless occurred. However, the perception that the fraudulent calls were targeted rather than random was correct. The calls did not consistently target swing ridings, but they were very distinctly aimed at the supporters of opposition parties.

On March 15, 2012, Terry Milewski reported on CBC News the results of an investigation which discovered that voters across Canada believed "the reason they got robocalls sending them to fictitious polling stations" was that they had previously revealed "they would not vote Conservative." The pattern this investigation revealed was one in which legitimate "voter ID" calls from the Conservative Party were followed by illegal and fraudulent calls – which suggested, as NDP and Liberal politicians promptly charged, that information from the voter ID calls had been fed into the Conservatives' central database, the Constituency Information Management System (CIMS), which had then been used to generate lists of people to be targeted with vote suppression calls.

This accusation received support from a study published in April 2012 by Ekos Research, which as Michael Valpy wrote in The Globe and Mail, concluded that there was "strong evidence of a targeted program of voter suppression aimed at non-Conservative voters" during the 2011 federal election. This survey found "a strong correlation between people who said to political canvassers ... they would not be supporting the Conservatives," and people who claimed they were called at the end of the campaign "and given false information."

Court documents released on April 5, 2012 from the ongoing Elections Canada investigation in Guelph, Ontario provided decisive confirmation -- in that riding at least -- of the linkage between Conservative Party voter-intention data collection and the vote-suppression robocalls. It was known by this time that the major mid-morning election-day wave of these calls in Guelph and some other Ontario ridings had been sent out, at the instigation of someone in Guelph who had concealed himself under the names "Pierre Poutine" and "Pierre Jones," from the servers of RackNine, an Edmonton voice-broadcasting company exclusively contracted to the Conservative Party.

Elections Canada investigators Allan Mathews and Ronald Lamothe suspected a link between the list of Guelph numbers to which the robocalls from RackNine were sent out and the listings of non-Conservative supporters in Guelph held by the Conservative Party's CIMS database. Court documents generated by Mathews refer to an interview he conducted on March 9, 2012 with Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton and Conservative central office staffer Chris Rougier, the person responsible for CIMS: "They say the RackNine list appears to be a list of identified non-supporters, with data on it that was updated in CIMS on April 27, 2011." As Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher wrote in the National Post on April 16, 2012, "The CIMS data were compared to listings of the outgoing robocalls provided under court order by RackNine and matched perfectly...."

Further evidence indicating Conservative Party responsibility for the fraudulent misinformation calls became available between February and November 2012 through the reporting of Maher and McGregor on the subject of internal Elections Canada emails dating from April 29 to May 2, 2011.

On the evening of April 29, 2011, Sylvie Jacmain, Elections Canada's director of field programs and services, wrote to agency lawyer Ageliki Apostolakos that in the ridings of St. Boniface and Kitchener-Conestoga "it seems representatives of Mr. Harper's campaign communicated with voters to inform them that their polling station had changed." The complaints received from those ridings indicated that the information contained in these calls was systematically false.

On May 1, according to reports, election officer Anita Hawdur wrote to Apostolakos that "The polling station numbers given out by the Conservative Party [...] are all wrong. Most of them are quite far away from the elector's home and from the initial polling place that showed on their VIC [voter information card]." Shortly afterwards, Hawdur added, "This is getting pretty suspicious. The workers in the returning office think these people are running a scam."

Also on May 1, Elections Canada lawyer Michèle René de Cotret wrote to inform Jane Dunlop, the manager of external relations, of "some mischief purportedly done by representatives of the Conservative party calling people to tell them that the location of their polling site has been moved." 

On the following morning, Hawdur sent a message to agency lawyer Karen McNeil under the heading ″URGENT Conservative campaign office communication with electors." McNeil asked Hawdur to alert Ronnie Moldar, the deputy chief electoral officer, who in turn emailed Michael Roussel, a senior director, saying: "This one is far more serious. They have actually disrupted the voting process."

But perhaps the most incriminating of all the Elections Canada emails is one in which Sylvain Lortie, writing from St. Boniface to Sylvie Jacmain, alleged that the misinformation calls in that riding had been stopped by the Conservative Party's national headquarters "at the request of the local [Conservative] association." McGregor and Maher's attempt to follow up this claim got nowhere: ″John Tropak, campaign manager for Shelly Glover, the Conservative MP for Saint Boniface, declined to say who the campaign contacted in Ottawa to ask the party to stop the bad calls. 'I have no idea what you're talking about,' he said repeatedly. 'I get it but I don't have any knowledge about anything like that whatsoever.'"

Was Lortie perhaps mistaken? Or was Tropak's response the one that any functionary who hoped for future employment in the Conservative Party would give?

But now we must pose a more embarrassing question. Why, given this (and other) evidence of Conservative Party involvement in organizing what looks like a major state crime against democracy, did Elections Canada's investigation fail so completely to get to the bottom of it? That will be the subject of my next posting.

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