1 Mar 2012

The big robo-calling question:
will anyone go to jail?

Two important questions arise concerning the robo-calling scandal:

Good investigative journalism could break this affair wide open, but will the owners of the Harper-friendly corporate media allow their journalists to go beyond normal reporting and do the hard work necessary to get to the very bottom of this dark story?

And, if a “smoking gun” can be traced to the Conservative camp, will the normally reluctant, resource-strapped Elections Canada show the guts and take strong action against the dangerously vindictive Stephen Harper and his gang and push for someone to be jailed?

The media very well could provide a great public service if it were to finally pin something extremely significant on the slippery Harper government. Criminal convictions in what amounts to vote fixing – reminding me of the days when political parties in Nova Scotia provided a $2 bottle of rum for a vote – could help shut down Harper’s destructive agenda, as well as ruin his attempt for another victory in 2015.

A few years ago The Globe and Mail would have led the way investigating this story. But since The Globe went upscale in 2009 to cater to a wealthier demographic under new owner David Thomson and Editor-in-Chief John Stackhouse, investigative journalism has pretty well disappeared at the paper.

Amazingly, The Globe believes what Stephen Harper says. The paper’s March 1 2012 headline blared: “Tories played no tricks: Harper.” Perhaps the paper got a late night call from a Deep Throat insider assuring them that everything is okay.

Ibbitson and Hébert well off the mark

Meanwhile, the country’s likely two most influential political columnists, John Ibbitson of The Globe and Chantal Hébert of The Toronto Star, whose column is also syndicated, downplayed the amount of evidence against Harper. Ibbitson even went on the CBC`s The Current  and foolishly told Anna Maria Tremonti that the hierarchy of the Conservative Party would never be involved in anything like the robo-calling scandal.

It is difficult to understand why Ibbitson and Hébert say they could not imagine Harper’s top people being involved in directing the robo-calling campaign. Near the close of the 2006 election campaign, three key Harper aides – the same type of folks Ibbitson is talking about – ran a scheme to conceal the fact that they had exceeded their advertising spending allowance in a number of key ridings by $1.4-million in a complicated, deceptive scheme.

That time Harper’s Team was caught and their offices raided by police. The party ultimately pled guilty to reduced charges of violating financing provisions of the Elections Act. The long-drawn out affair clearly showed that it was Harper’s staff that had broken the law.

If any media organization comes up with the “smoking gun” to tie this story to the PMO, it might be the strong investigative team at The Toronto Star or journalists from Postmedia and The Ottawa Citizen. Stephen Maher of Postmedia and Glen McGregor of The Citizen broke the original story on February 22.

It should not be too hard to get to the bottom of this affair. As many as 50 people – perhaps even 100 – have some idea of what took place. This includes owners and managers of three robo-calling/polling companies. There are the people who prepared the detailed information concerning who should be called, the many people who operated the systems, folks working in banks, and Conservative workers and volunteers in many ridings. Then there are telephone records, billing and receipt transactions, and bank trails that media may not get hold of, but that can be accessed by the RCMP and Elections Canada.

Story could slide to inside pages
If the media does not break open this story during the next couple of weeks, the scandal could easily move to the inside pages. It would then be out of the public eye. Folks as far away as St. Anthony, Nfld. would be able to hear the collective sigh of relief coming from the Prime Minister’s Office and corporate board rooms across the country.

Whatever happens, Elections Canada will likely be working on the robo-calling case for months or even years.  But does the agency have the courage to try to put someone behind bars if they are found guilty of election tampering? Based on the organization’s record - probably not.

Elections Canada has been soft on individuals and groups found guilty of violating voting laws. First, there was the disgraceful way it accepted the Conservative Party’s admission of guilt in the 2006 ‘in-and-out scandal’ in return for not pursuing criminal charges against the high-level operatives in Harper’s office.

In other cases, the NDP avoided prosecution by admitting that it had violated two sections of the Elections Act.; Liberal leadership candidates were permitted to continue to carry debt from their 2006 battle to replace Paul Martin; and the CBC was let off the hook after it broke the law that prohibits the broadcast of election results before polls close across the country.

Public interest organization Democracy Watch said that Elections Canada has a “dangerously weak enforcement record.” Out of thousands of cases, only 10 Canadians have been convicted of electoral crimes since 2004. No one has gone to jail.

Moreover, Elections Canada is highly secretive. “…. no one can tell whether Elections Canada is enforcing the federal election law fairly and properly because it has kept secret its investigations and rulings on more than 2,280 complaints since 2004,'' said Democracy Watch spokesman Tyler Sommers.

Elections Canada’s Strategic Plan indicates that it may not have enough people to adequately investigate the huge robo-calling case. While the agency has a permanent employee base of 330 people, “it currently relies on casual, temporary and contract personnel and core staff overtime to prepare for and conduct electoral events, especially so when workload peaks. . .  .”

The agency employs a number of retired RCMP officers. Given the track record of the RCMP in some parts of the country, this is a bit of concern.

Elections Canada said the pressures it is under “limit our organizational capacity to take on additional work resulting from electoral events or further electoral reforms. This is an area that will require close attention.”

Council of Canadians becoming involved
Thankfully, in light of the mistrust of the media and Elections Canada, the hard-nosed public interest group the Council of Canadians (CoC) has come forward to try to make sure that justice will prevail.

The CoC has announced it is collecting anecdotal information on election abuse during the campaign. It will work with citizens to launch court challenges in ridings where the number of offensive calls exceeded the vote total by which the Conservatives defeated an opponent.

CoC Executive Director Garry Neil said the council will distribute a questionnaire to "a significant number of Canadians in each of the affected ridings," focusing on 20 ridings where poll margins were close, such as Guelph, Thunder Bay and Windsor, Ont. The questionnaire can be found on the CoC’s website.

Stay tuned! This is very important for those of us who want to see the destructive Stephen Harper brought down to size and responsible democracy restored.

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  1. Good to hear the CoC's now on it! I think someone will do jailtime but, if Sen Duffy's comments earlier in the week mean anything, I think they're hoping someone from a 3rd party will take the fall.

    Another interesting piece is how the CPC appears to be distancing itself from the local riding associations aka EDAs. In the House the PM was very "clear" about the CPC not being involved. And Del Mastro stressed that on PNP today, too. So that makes me suspect something.

    Oh, and then the Le Devoire story! The Con fellow has recanted his tale! And that's making me even MORE suspicious.

    I would so love to have a do-over of Elxn41!

  2. Obviously there are more than a few "local ridings" involved in this anti democratic criminal operation.

    That having been said, the clarion call for Cons in Ottawa to do the jail time they so richly deserve could be counter productive to the progressive cause. This cause has the ouster of the neofascist government in 2015 as NO 1 on the agenda; we need to focus more on the political, which is to get an angry opposing electorial base to the polls in sufficient numbers to accomplish this.

    While it would be nice to see Elections Canada and/or the RCMP able to get to the bottom of this sordid affair and punish the transgressors, I think perhaps that is an unrealistic hope.

    A more productive approach might bhe to concentrate on keeping this mess squarely in the public eye for the next 3-4 years. I.e. as evidence comes to light release it in increments designed to get the message accross; neo-fascists are continually anti-democratic.

    Remember the political scene requires much less evidence for condemnation than does a criminal case that must be proved "beyond any reasonable doubt". Also remember that any hint of REAL wrong doing against the democratic process sends the electorate in droves to the opposition.

    The CONS LOST the Guelph riding which is where this story broke. Not withstanding their crude robo-call tactics, the bully boy raid on the advanced poll at the University of Guelph made them lose this one that had been a close call by a wide margin.

    IN aword; keep the perspective of ANTI-democracy in front of the electorate and here is the 2015 WINNING condition!

  3. The Cons have lots of front groups in Canada which also have the MOTIVE MEANS and MONEY to be behind the robocalls etc. Also a lot of money is funnelled from the USA into Canada to ensure a Con victory

    1. Please pass on the USA as a source of Cons support. Remember that the CONS use the specter of American inputs against environmental concerns; an issue where continentalism makes sense, but where jingoism works as usual to benefit the reactionary elemrnts.

    2. Santorum and Harper both used robocalls.
      We'd all be fools to think that the American and Canadian Religious Right weren't in collusion.
      I want my country back!
      And so a polite "no", I won't pass on the U.S.A. Religious Right as being the source of this subversion of our democracy.

  4. Elections Canada spent nearly 8 months in Guelph - and came up with what???

    There is only one question - who paid the bills?

  5. Why the emphasis on catching the Conservatives? Whoever was responsible, it appears widespread fraud has taken place. Election fraud is a crime against democracy, so maybe restorative justice, in the form of by elections or a general election, is a more appropriate than retribution.

    1. Thank you for this enlightened suggestion. The issue is a breach of trust. We all lose when the discussion degrades to mutual counter-attacks. If you read the Terry Fallis novel "Best Laid Plans" it is apparent desparate strategies are part of the election game, but have now crossed the line.

  6. Former Chief Electoral Officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has come out of retirement to comment on this story in several places. On CBC's As It Happens, he made it very clear that Elections Canada has the resources and the authority to conduct thorough and widespread investigations into these types of events. He made it sound like there was no limit in terms of finances if they believed there is wrong doing afoot here. Today on the radio news, Elections Canada made a press release saying they had heard from no less than 30,000 people complaining about getting calls from people misrepresenting themselves as being from EC. As a former election official on the provincial level, I think we need to keep pushing them to move quickly on this. I also think Canadians need to educate themselves about our Elections Act. And use the CoC offer to help with complaints and legal challenges. I agree this needs to stay in the public eye.

  7. Perhaps those people posting as anonymous don't realize that they can use the Name/URL option and not put a web site/blog address for us to see. The Anonymous option is an easy one, but if you can't stand up for what you have to say, is it really worth saying? There are at least 3 Anonymous postings on this article, 4 if you count Regina Mom. 5 is Stephanie S is included. Thanks for standing up for what you believe in, Mr. Tarbuck.

    6 if you include me.

  8. harvey mckinnon3 March 2012 at 19:58

    I want to share a story with you from Vancouver Sun: By Glen McGregor and Stephen Maher, OTTAWA — The company that handles the Conservative Party's computerized voter-identification system and powerful fundraising machine has a checkered legal history (See the full text at http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Conservative+call+centre+company+checkered+legal+history/6237412/story.html)

    1. Harvey, your link didn't work.

    2. It works if you don't include the closing bracket

  9. If you think for one second that the Conservative Party of Canada had anything to do with this you are sadly mistaken. You may disagree with their politics, call them names, believe that the Liberals are the 'natural'ruling party or think that Harper is 'evil' and has a 'secret agenda', but I can assure you that the robocalls were the actions of an over-zealous group of misguided individuals. No more, no less. There is no smoking gun, no conspiracy and no links to the USA.
    People, get a life. The chattering classes among the Liberal party seem to think that the average Canadian actually cares about this. On a scale of 1 to 10 it probably ranks about 25, somewhere below what to make the kids for lunch tomorrow and will the Leafs make the play-offs.

    1. Actually, I think you'll find that a lot of people care about someone subverting their democratic rights. Given the Conservatives' past behaviour, a lot of people (myself included) are having no trouble at all believing that they're behind this.

      Frankly, given how obvious it is that their party is trying to hide something and deflect from the issue, I'm starting to wonder if Conservative supporters actually have any critical thinking skills. As far as excuses go, so far all we've been hearing are variants on "that's simply not true" and "liberalsliberalsliberals."

      Canadians are generally apathetic and stupid, but they're not so far gone that they can't recognize when someone is screwing with them.

  10. Carl Rosenberg5 March 2012 at 23:25

    To "Anonymous": What is your basis for being so confident ("I can assure you..." etc.) that the Conservatives had nothing to do with these voter-suppression tactics, or that "the average Canadian" cares nothing about it? Given the serious of these actions, isn't it important to establish exactly who the "overzealous individuals" were? Or don't you think such acts (deliberately trying to thwart attempts to vote) are serious?

  11. What has happened to Chantal Hebert? It's like she is going out of her way to be an apologist for the Conservatives. There is this thing that seems to happen to Canadian journalists as they age (perhaps except for Neil MacDonald and few others): it is like they think they have to be all sensible and reasoned (which I read as fearful and tentative), while forgetting evidence and facts of how things have been and could be again. No one is asking her to accuse the cons but I am expecting her to do her job and investigate and analyze.

  12. Elections Canada reports 31000 complaints? This is 100+ per Federal riding. I suspect these 31000 are a minority; the total harraased is probably several times higher?

    Perhaps these individuals, politically concious enough to formally complain once they realised what had gone on will help to contnually spread the word. The CONS are intrinsically ANTI-democratic!

    Awareness of such shenanigans along with awakening the sleeping 38% stay-at-homes is where the next PROGRESSIVE victory will be coming from.

  13. Didn't many believe Nixon couldn't possibly be involved when Watergate was breaking?

    The real issue isn't whether Conservatives were involved anyway. Election fraud is election fraud and should be fully investigated. So if the Conservatives are not involved, why are they dragging their feet and making excuses for inaction?

  14. Browse: Home / Social Issues / Robo-Calling Can Significantly Impact Voting
    Robo-Calling Can Significantly Impact Voting

    Written by: Eurasia Review
    March 15, 2012

    Calls made by automatic – or robo-calling – to potential voters can affect the outcome of elections.

    These are the findings of a new paper, where a Simon Fraser University economist finds that robo-calling in Canada, if the phenomenon did occur, could have significantly influenced voter turnout and ballot results in the last federal election. The term robo-calling describes a variety of tactics used to influence voter turnout and behaviour, including making harassing phone calls and advising voters to go to the wrong polling stations.

    Elections Canada is investigating New Democrat and Liberal party allegations that the Conservatives hired companies to robo-call voters in ridings across Canada, thereby influencing the Tories’ 2011 federal election win.

    The number cruncher compared the voter turnout and ballot results in all ridings across Canada in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections. In those ridings where Elections Canada is investigating robo-calling allegations about the 2011 election, Kessler teased out estimates on the number of voters per riding who were discouraged from going to the polls.

    “Ridings where voters were allegedly targeted by robo-calls — meaning they were possibly discouraged from voting or directed to the wrong polls — experienced an estimated decline in voter turnout of three percentage points on average. This reduction in turnout translates into roughly 2,500 fewer eligible (registered) voters going to the polls.”

    Kessler’s study indicates that in five ridings with the alleged robo-calling fewer than 2,500 votes were needed to ensure a Liberal or NDP victory. Hence her conclusion that any alleged robo-calling could have secured a Tory victory in those ridings.

    “The average winning margin for districts with no robocall-allegations was 10,913 votes or 22.6 percentage points,” explains Kessler. “Ridings where allegations of impropriety have emerged, in contrast, had a margin of victory that was almost 28 percent lower: 8,719 votes or 16.4 percentage points.”

    Kessler says curiosity about whether publicly available Elections Canada data on election results supported or negated the idea that robo-calling could influence voter turnout and ballot results drove her to download the data.

    “It is important to note that my findings in no way can prove whether misconduct or an illegal act has occurred,” emphasizes Kessler, who regularly analyses political organizational design, government structure and elections. “I wish to emphasize that my analysis and the corresponding results are not suited to bring into question the election outcome in any particular riding.”

    That being said, Kessler continues: “My analysis of the Elections Canada data suggests that any alleged robo-calling had a statistically significant impact on voter turnout and election results.”

  15. Maybe the cons learn the dirty ways from their friends in USAb Republican Party??

    Suppression Efforts
    Saturday 17 March 2012
    by: Nicolas Riley, The Brennan Center for Justice | News Analysis

    Almost 47 years to the day after a peaceful voting rights march in Selma, Alabama, ended in violence on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a federal court in Philadelphia struck a major blow against modern day voter intimidation tactics.

    Last Thursday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld a long-standing consent decree prohibiting the Republican National Committee (RNC) from engaging in underhanded campaign practices aimed at depressing voter turnout in communities of color. The consent decree, which arose out of a 1981 voting rights lawsuit against the RNC, bars the organization from using voter challengers, poll watchers, and vote caging plans to target and intimidate voters of color. It specifically precludes the RNC’s poll watchers from overstepping their role as election observers and prohibits them from asking voters for identification, filming or recording voters, and distributing literature about voter fraud penalties. After a federal district court denied the RNC’s request to dissolve the consent decree in 2009, the RNC appealed to the Third Circuit.

    In unanimously rejecting the RNC’s appeal, the Third Circuit highlighted the continuing threat that voter intimidation poses to our election system. The court’s opinion described how poll watchers and poll challengers have the potential to disenfranchise lawful voters by causing delays, crowding, and confusion inside the polling place and creating a charged partisan atmosphere that can intimidate many new voters. The Brennan Center has highlighted these problems in the past and applauds the court for upholding this important safeguard against voter suppression.

    The court’s decision represents a significant victory for voters but also serves as a critical reminder about the need to protect against the kinds of pernicious voter intimidation tactics that the court discussed in its opinion. With the 2012 election fast approaching, it is important that state officials take steps to ensure that other political groups—not just the RNC—follow the law and refrain from using poll watchers to intimidate or discriminate against voters. In 2010, reports surfaced about political campaigns and other private organizations attempting to engage in the kinds of activities that the Third Circuit described. The Department of Justice investigated the poll-watching efforts of one such organization in Harris County, Texas, after fielding complaints that the group’s members were interfering with the voting process in predominantly black and Latino voting precincts. As these organizations ramp up their efforts to recruit poll watchers for the upcoming presidential election, election officials must be prepared to enforce the law and protect voters.

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