Former Minister of Trade for Sport and MP for Saanich-Gulf Islands Gary Lunn

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It would not have been hard to predict, in advance of our 2011 federal election, that if large-scale vote-suppression fraud occurred the regulatory and law-enforcement responses to it would be inadequate.

In the 2008 election, the riding of Saanich-Gulf Islands was subjected to what amounted to a dress rehearsal for the 2011 fraud and a laboratory test of the efficacy of fraudulent robocalls. The re-election bid of Conservative Minister of Natural Resources, Gary Lunn, in that B.C. riding had been thrown into crisis by the late withdrawal of NDP candidate Julian West, which gave Liberal Briony Penn a strong chance of upsetting Lunn. But taking advantage of the fact that West’s name remained on the ballot, Conservative agents or supporters flooded the riding on the day before the election with robocalls, falsely claiming to be from the NDP riding association, which urged NDP supporters to vote for West. A poll had indicated that less than one per cent of the electorate intended to vote for this non-candidate — but on election day another 4.7 per cent were deceived by the robocalls into throwing their votes away.

The fraud was decisive: Lunn defeated Penn by a number significantly smaller than the number of NDP supporters who might otherwise have voted for her. And taking the NDP vote in the previous election of 2006 as a baseline indicator of support, it appears that the robocalls succeeded in disenfranchising nearly 18 per cent of that party’s supporters.

This episode revealed a disturbing moral bankruptcy within the RCMP and Elections Canada. The RCMP declared that no laws had been broken — which was false, as the Victoria Times-Colonist pointed out: “It’s a Criminal Code offence to knowingly provide false information over the phone [section 372] or to fraudulently impersonate another [section 403].” And in March 2009, Elections Canada dismissed Liberal and NDP complaints about the fraud, on the grounds that its investigator had found “no one who had actually been influenced in their vote because of the purported telephone call” and could not identify “the source of the person or persons who actually made the calls.”

A year later, nettled by continuing complaints, Elections Canada stated flatly that “there is no evidence that the Canada Elections Act has been contravened.” The agency thus compounded a confession of investigative incompetence with an impudent falsehood: section 482(b) of the Act states that “Every person is guilty of an offence who by any pretence or contrivance…induces a person to vote or refrain from voting or to vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate at an election.”

Perhaps more seriously, the failure of these two agencies to carry out their duty to enforce the law seems to have encouraged the perpetrators of this local fraud to repeat their maneuver in 2011 on a national scale.

Given that the investigation into nationwide vote suppression fraud in the 2011 election led to the charging and conviction of just one person, a Conservative Party staffer who was 22 at the time of the election, it’s not hard to conclude that this investigation was, once again, a fiasco.

As my previous entry indicated, we know from the email correspondence of Elections Canada officials that they were aware of Conservative Party responsibility for the misinformation calls that increasing numbers of voters were complaining of between April 29 and May 2, 2011. Nonetheless, Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand’s report on the 2011 election, published in August of that year, dismissed the telephone fraud as insignificant.

To Mayrand’s credit, by late March 2012 he had changed his tune, telling a House of Commons committee that the 2011 fraud was “absolutely outrageous” and “totally unacceptable in a modern democracy,” and declaring that Elections Canada was investigating 800 specific complaints in 200 ridings across 10 provinces and one territory. On the same day, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty punished this display of integrity by announcing a cut to the agency’s budget of $7.5 million per year.

But how effective was Elections Canada’s expanded investigation? Guelph, the riding in which there were by far the largest number of complaints, had been the focus of the agency’s initial efforts. An investigative breakthrough there was made possible by the volunteered expertise of Toronto IT expert Simon Rowlands, whose input and advice were acknowledged by investigator Allan Mathews. However, on August 27, 2012, reporters Stephen Maher and Glen McGregor revealed that court documents made public on that day “show investigators have not sought phone or Internet records for any calls beyond Guelph, Ont., raising a question about how vigorously the agency is looking into reports from voters.” By late November 2012, Elections Canada was digging into phone records in 56 ridings, but 18 months after the election much of the telecommunications information they sought no longer existed.

Even in Guelph there were deficiencies in the investigation. Allan Mathews looked into the burst of nearly 7,700 robocalls sent between 10:03 and 10:14 a.m. on election day by RackNine, an Edmonton voice broadcasting company under contract to the Conservative Party, to a list of some 6,700 Guelph voters on the instructions of “Pierre Poutine” or “Pierre Jones.” However, the court documents Mathews filed reveal that Elections Canada’s office in Guelph was “inundated” with complaints from the moment its telephone lines opened at 8:50 a.m. on May 2, and that people deceived by fraudulent calls started showing up at a central Guelph polling station as soon as it opened at 9:30 a.m. This is clear evidence that other fraudulent calls preceded the “Pierre Poutine” calls, but Mathews seems to have made no effort to trace these earlier calls.

Elections Canada took note of a total of 379 complaints about fraudulent calls from Guelph. Mathews provides information about just 18 of these complaints — two of which involved calls quite unlike the “Poutine” robocalls: in one case, repeated pre-election-day calls, and in the other, a mid-afternoon call claiming that polling stations had closed early. These calls likewise went uninvestigated, in part because Mathews’ court order for information from RackNine was for records only from a single day, May 2.

But as we will see in my next entry, these errors pale by comparison with other much more significant mistakes, in Guelph and elsewhere, that sent Elections Canada’s investigation completely off the tracks.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons