A threat to Canada’s position as a democratic protector.
In his first public comments since news of the “robocalling” scandal broke, Canada’s chief electoral officer acknowledged receiving complaints from voters in 200 of the country’s 308 federal ridings, saying they received misleading information about where to cast their ballots during Canada’s 2011 federal election.
Marc Mayrand told a House of Commons committee on March 29 the investigation, which started in one riding, has widened across the country as voters continue coming forward. An Elections Canada Investigation waded through 31,000 expressions of concern about the election and is investigating 800 specific complaints.
“I can tell you that the 800 complaints or so cut across pretty much the whole country,” Mayrand said. “If you ask me, it’s 10 provinces and one territory.”
The Northwest Territories and Nunavut are the only two jurisdictions in the country where there have not yet been reports of fraudulent election activity.
The scandal first came to light in the single riding of Guelph where, shortly after the election last May, voters complained to Elections Canada they had received automated phone calls purporting to be from elections officials, directing them to wrong or non-existent polling stations.
As the investigation broadened in the following months, officials discovered similar stories in other ridings. The issue became a full-blown political scandal in February 2012 when it was discovered that RackNine, the Edmonton-based marketing firm employed to place the computer-generated calls, had also been employed by the governing Conservative party. The Conservatives insist they did not know about the fraudulent calls and did not direct the marketing company to make them.
The investigation revealed that in the Guelph riding alone, 7,000 fraudulent calls had come from a cell phone registered to “Pierre Poutine” – an obviously fake name, as poutine is the name of a French-Canadian fast-food dish.
In March, individual voters with the support of the citizens advocacy group Council of Canadians made an application to the Federal Court of Canada to overturn election results in seven of the country’s ridings where the fraudulent calls likely affected the result of closely-contested elections with a narrow margin of victory. All of the ridings in question were won by Conservatives, and all but one was decided by less than 1,000 votes.
In an eighth riding, a defeated Liberal Member of Parliament is personally funding a court challenge of an election he lost to his Conservative challenger by just 26 votes.
It has been 24 years since a court overturned an election result in Canada. In that rare case, the number of spoiled or questionable ballots was higher than the margin of victory, so the court ordered another election in the riding. But this type of widespread fraudulent election activity is unheard of in Canada, which has been a world leader in establishing election procedures in developing countries and re-establishing democratic processes in war-torn regions.
For example, one of Canada’s main roles in its military involvement in Afghanistan has been to oversee the creation of democratic election processes.
“One of Canada’s six priorities in Afghanistan is to help advance Afghanistan’s capacity for democratic governance by contributing to effective, accountable public institutions and electoral processes,” states a Government of Canada website, which goes on to detail how Canada provided financial and technical support for the 200 presidential election and 2010 parliamentary elections in Afghanistan.
The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) funds CANADEM a non-profit organization that, among other things, offers Canadian expertise in election monitoring. Since 2002, the group has engaged in 130 election-monitoring missions to more than 40 countries including Russia, Nicaragua, Niger, Kazakhstan, and Tunisia.
Canada’s reputation as a world leader in election processes has already sustained a black eye with this robocalling scandal. If the criminal investigation into the scandal finds evidence to link the fraudulent activity back to the governing Conservatives, political pundits have said the scandal could be the Canadian equivalent of Watergate. If the source of this fraudulent election activity is found to be political, Canada’s international reputation could be harmed irreparably.
Mark Eyking, one of the Liberal Members of Parliament whose constituents contacted his headquarters on Election Day to complain about receiving misleading calls, sits on the Canadian foreign affairs committee, the government body that oversees election monitoring abroad.
“And here within our own country we have this sort of thing going on. It’s just unbelievable,” he told his local newspaper The Cape Breton Post.
Chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has committed to submitting a written report on the scandal to Parliament within one year, though it is expected the Royal Canadian Mounted Police will have started laying criminal charges by then.