Thursday, March 15, 2012

"We're Number 1! We're Number 1! We're Number 1!" ..... in political dirty tricks"

Electoral integrity rests with Elections Canada's robocalls investigation, says Kingsley

John Pierre Kingsley has monitored many international elections in many emerging democracies and 'this is beyond anything that ever transpired.'
By Bea Vongdouangchanh
Monday, March 3, 2012

The domestic and international integrity of Canada’s elections system may rest in how Elections Canada handles its investigation of the robocall, voter suppression issue during the last election campaign, says Canada’s former chief electoral officer.

“It is bound to have an influence,” said Jean-Pierre Kingsley, who served as Canada’s chief electoral officer from 1990 to 2007.

“Some people will, around the world, start to wonder about this system which has been touted as the model, at least in terms of the principles and in terms of its execution,” said Mr. Kingsley. “What we do with it now is what is really what will count. We cannot discount the fact that there will have been some influence, some impact on our reputation, but how we handle it from here until we find out exactly what transpired, is also going to be telling on our system and that’s going to be very important.”

NDP House Leader Joe Comartin (Windsor-Tecumseh, Ontario) said that the issue could have a negative impact on Canada’s reputation as election monitors.

“You have to wonder what other countries have to say the next time we volunteer to go and supervise their elections. It damages that reputation there’s just no question,” Mr. Comartin told The Hill Times. “And this has been a situation where this has not just been a domestic story. This has gotten a fair amount of international attention, so yeah, I mean I don’t think there’s any doubt that it damages our credibility on the international scene. Whether it will be to the extent that some countries say, ‘You know we don’t want volunteers or monitors from Canada because we’re not sure they know how to run clean elections,’ we don’t know.”

Mr. Kingsley, who headed the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in Washington, D.C., and who has monitored numerous international elections in emerging democracies, said in his experience, the voter suppression issue “doesn’t compare” to anything he’s ever seen.

“This is beyond anything that ever transpired,” he said, noting when he was in Washington, D.C., during the 2008 presidential election, he also did not hear of robocalls directing voters to different polling stations.

The opposition has repeatedly said the strategy to suppress the vote is an “American style, dirty trick.”

“The world has seen some very unsophisticated means of tampering with the ballot box. We’ve seen ballot boxes found in piles of junk, we’ve seen ballot boxes stuffed with more votes than voters, but there’s also been instances where very sophisticated means of tampering with the system have occurred, where for example, during the count computers break down, the count is suspended and then when the count resumes it starts to go the way that certain parties want it to go. That is not very sophisticated, in one sense, but in another sense it is, because it’s tampering with the computers and leads one to believe there are much smarter ways people have used as well that we’ve not detected, per se,” Mr. Kingsley told The Hill Times last week. “That, I think, is most probably happening, but nothing of this particular [robocall] ilk. What it all boils down to is one thing—someone is trying to get to the ballot box, someone is trying to influence the outcome of elections in a way that electorate did not intend.”

The robocalls story broke last month when the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia News reported that Elections Canada, aided by the RCMP, was investigating fraudulent phone calls, or robocalls, made during the last election that misled voters. The story also reported that the Conservatives were conducting an internal probe.

Voters in as many as 68 ridings, claim to have received automated phone messages, or “robocalls” from a service pretending to be calling on behalf of Elections Canada, telling them that their polling station had been moved, and misdirecting people to a new location. The calls seem to have been targeted at Liberal and NDP voters in hotly-contested ridings that the Conservatives were hoping to take from Grit incumbents. Voters have also complained about being inundated with annoying or harassing pro-Liberal or NDP calls at all hours of the day. Elections Canada is currently investigating more than 31,000 complaints. The Conservative Party has denied being involved with any type of voter suppression activity.

Last week Elections Canada created a “fraudulent calls” complaint form on its website for Canadians to fill out if they believe they were victims of voter suppression.

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“Following media reports in recent days, the issue referred to as ‘robocalls’ has generated much concern and interest among Canadians. Many have contacted Elections Canada, as well as the media, various political parties and/or their representatives and other organizations, to provide information. In addition, the House of Commons recently adopted a unanimous motion calling on all members of Parliament and political parties to assist in the investigation,” Elections Canada’s press release states.

“In order to facilitate the complaint process and ensure that information is provided directly to the Commissioner of Canada Elections, Elections Canada has developed an online complaint form that complements the traditional channels by which complaints about the electoral process are lodged with Elections Canada and/or the Commissioner of Canada Elections.”

A Conservative strategist, who did not want to be identified, criticized Elections Canada as having a bias.
“Elections Canada should not be using language like that. Nothing’s been proven, so there’s no fraud,” the strategist said, referring to the online complaints form. “For them to use that kind of language, they’re already showing their colours and there’s no love lost in the Conservative Party and Elections Canada.”

The commissioner of Elections Canada, appointed by the chief electoral officer, is an independent person whose responsibility is to enforce the Canada Elections Act and carry out investigations. The current commissioner is William Corbett.

According to Elections Canada, investigations are launched after the office of the commissioner of Elections Canada receives a complaint or referral and a preliminary review shows there is sufficient evidence to continue with a full investigation. If the complaint or referral is anonymous or made 10 years or more after the incident took place, the investigation could be closed.

Further, investigations will be dropped if there is no public interest to continue, if the allegations are outside of the commissioner’s jurisdiction, or if the subject of the complaint has taken “corrective measures” prior to the complaint being investigated.

Mr. Kingsley said the commissioner has a group of investigators that are “on call” across the country. There are two to three investigators per region who are essentially contractors, he said, so there are no “employees” who are investigators.

The RCMP will get involved in an Elections Canada investigation for either or both of two reasons: for their investigative expertise, or the Commissioner has found a possible infraction of the Criminal Code.

Mr. Kingsley said he has “no clue” how much an investigation could cost, but said the office has “all the resources,” including statutory authority to spend the money it needs to enforce the Canada Elections Act.
Mr. Comartin estimated that the cost could be in the millions of dollars, depending on how long the investigation takes.

Mr. Kingsley said he suspects some parts will take longer than others to investigate so “it’s difficult to tell what the overall time would be,” but, it’s safe to say it will take at least months.

If the commissioner finds a breach of the Canada Elections Act after he concludes an investigation, he will forward it on to the director of Public Prosecutions to decide if charges will be laid.

The last major investigation Elections Canada conducted was the “in and out” scandal related to Conservative Party election advertising spending. Elections Canada spent $1.3-million on legal fees related to the Conservative Party from 2005 to 2011, according to a document it tabled in Parliament last year, but it’s unclear how much of it was directly related to the “in and out” case.

The investigation took a number years before charges were laid by the director of Public Prosecutions. The Conservative Party paid a $50,000 fine last year for inadvertent and limited non-compliance with the Elections Act. As a result, charges of willfully violating party spending limits against Senators Irving Gerstein and Doug Finley, and party officers Mike Donison and Susan Kehoe, were dropped.

Mr. Comartin said he is confident that the Elections Canada investigation will be able to “ultimately identify the culprit” behind the robocalls, but said that he’s concerned about whether it will be able to “ascertain how much impact it had on the actual election outcome.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand said in a press release that he will be tabling a report to Parliament of the investigation “in due course.”

bvongdou@hilltimes.com

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