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Hill Dispatches: Chief Electoral Officer says robocalls are 'absolutely outrageous'

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The Chief Electoral Officer could not have been clearer.

Automated calls telling voters that their polling stations had been changed never came from his agency.

Elections Canada does not keep or distribute phone numbers and never calls people, full stop.

The Chief Electoral Officer, Marc Mayrand, told the House of Commons Procedure and House Affairs Committee that he considers these fraudulent calls to be a very serious matter.

"It is absolutely outrageous to falsely represent oneself as Elections Canada," Mayrand told the committee. "That is unacceptable in a modern democracy."

In a way, say Conservatives, it is all Elections Canada's fault!

Conservative Committee members, such as Tom Lukiwski, tried to muddy the waters with questions about wrong addresses on Elections Canada's own voters list. Their point was bit tortuous, but it went this way:

Mayrand readily admits that somewhere between 10 and 15 per cent of the addresses on the list are in error. People have an inconvenient tendency to move, and the list must be frequently updated.

The Conservatives and other political parties depend on Elections Canada's lists for their own voter databases.

Ergo, the Conservatives might have accidentally, with no malicious intention, contacted some voters who had moved. Nothing wrong with that -- just an honest mistake that would, in fact, the Conservative members implied, have been the fault of Elections Canada...!

As Mayrand might have said in his first language, "il n'est pas allé par quatre chemins" in his response.

In the first place he said -- trying his best to be courteous and respectful of the Committee -- Elections Canada does not have nor does it distribute phone numbers.

And in the second place, he added, Elections Canada is not responsible for political parties' databases.

"Whenever you mix data sources," Mayrand explained, "there are likely to be problems."

Then the Chief Electoral officer concluded, through almost visibly gritted teeth:

"We are talking about people deliberately pretending to be Elections Canada employees, here. That does not happen because of errors in an address list!"

A significant number of serious complaints

Mayrand told the Committee that there were 800 complaints that merited investigation, coming from about 200 different ridings in all 10 provinces and one territory, and grouped into 250 case files.

Conservative members tried to make the case that the number of potentially well-founded complaints, out of an electorate of 24 million, was actually quite small.

Mayrand would have none of that.

"We know that the 'Pierre Poutine' robocall reached 6,700 people, but only 70 of those actually complained," he pointed out.

In other words, only a small percentage of people victimized by robocalls would be likely to actually complain about it.

Where there is a little bit of smoke, the Chief Electoral Officer seemed to be saying, there could be a lot more fire.

Liberal rule-breakers and vagueness in the legislation

Another diversion technique the Conservative Committee members tried was to bring up the Liberal MP for Guelph, Frank Valeriote's supposed malfeasance during the last campaign.

Valeriote's team apparently made calls to voters without identifying that they were coming from the Liberals.

Mayrand said the nub of that case is not one of fraud.

The Valeriote team's callers did not pretend to be from Elections Canada or from anyone else. They did, however, fail to provide an identifying tagline. If political telemarketing calls during an election campaign were considered advertising, that lack of the tagline would be against the rules.

However, that whole issue is a grey area.

In fact, Mayrand fretted to the Committee that there are too many grey areas in the current legislation, and he promised to propose changes to the electoral law before the next election.

Only the courts can overturn elections

One of the areas of law that seemed beyond the ken of most Committee members is the fact that Elections Canada does not have the power to overturn election results. Only the courts can do that in response to citizens' complaints.

Committee members repeatedly asked Mayrand about the threshold for nullifying the results of an election, and he had to repeat more than once that Elections Canada does not do that.

It may be one of the lacunae in the law that Mayrand will try to have fixed, but for now citizens who believe they were cheated out of their vote, and that the election in their riding should be rendered null and void, have to go to court.

Conservative best-defence-is-a-good-offence tactics

As it has been since this scandal broke, the Conservative strategy was quite obvious in these proceedings. You could call it passive-aggressive, or maybe Jekyll and Hyde.

On the one hand, the Conservative members say that even one person denied the right to vote is too many, and then, almost in the same breath, they pooh-pooh the total number of complaints as being so small as to be almost insignificant.

They solemnly assert that they support the Chief Electoral Officer 100% and then slyly try to undermine Elections Canada by suggesting it is responsible for some of the "problems" because of inaccuracies in the voters list.

They accept that this is a serious matter and of legitimate concern, and then say it's all an "opposition smear campaign" made up of "vague allegations."

At one point, Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro even asked Mayrand about supposed leaks from the Chief Electoral Officer's staff to the media. Journalists -- strange as it may seem! -- have been complaining to Conservative MPs that employees of Elections Canada has been slipping information to certain of their colleagues.

Dean Del Mastro did not, of course, provide any details. But his fellow Conservative committee members had earlier provided Mayrand with a handy response.

"If you want to talk about 'vague allegations,'" Mayrand shot back on the accusation his staff was leaking, "there's a perfect example!"

Mayrand will be back before end of session

Meanwhile, the Commissioner of Elections, who reports to Mayrand but operates at arm's length, will continue his investigative work. Mayrand told the committee he expects to be able to report back on the fruits of those investigations within a year.

The eight federal court cases are proceeding, although we have no news yet as to when they will be heard. Unlike the Commissioner of Elections' investigation, the burden of proof in the court cases is not what is necessary to establish criminal culpability.

The courts can rule in the aggrieved voters' favour even if no culprit is found. All the courts have to determine is whether or not any election results were compromised, making one or more by-elections necessary.

For his part, the Chief Electoral Officer agreed to meet the Committee again before the House rises in June.

Maybe the Conservative members will mind their manners better next time.

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