Last spring, a rare atmosphere of youth activism emerged in Canadian politics. Spurred by Rick Mercer and young people at the University of Guelph, thousands of students organized VoteMobs to increase the youth vote in the May 2011 federal election. Determined to prevent a Conservative majority, viral videos like ShitHarperdid swept the country. Several clashes occurred between young voters and Conservative staffers, including one at the University of Guelph. Polls predicted tight races in ridings across Canada, but none correctly predicted the outcome: on May 5, 2011, millions of Canadians watched the election results in shock: not only did Stephen Harper’s Conservatives have their majority, but the NDP was firmly ensconsed as the Official Opposition.

Although rumours of odd phone calls surfaced just after the election, with voters in highly-contested ridings claiming they’d been directed to vote at non-existent polling stations, it’s taken ten months for the story to surface. It’s now been alleged that in up to 70 ridings across the country, automated “robocalls” were made, with Elections Canada registering more than 31,000 complaints before the scandal hit. In some cases, voters changed their votes as a result of the calls; in others, they gave up when they arrived at the polling place they were incorrectly directed to. Oddly enough, one of the Conservative staffers linked to the robo-calls is Michael Sona, the same person who walked into a University of Guelph special ballot station during the election and tried to steal the ballot box to prevent students from voting. Sona resigned but denies any link to the robocalls. A voter suppression scandal with a culprit named Pierre Poutine, who is being hunted down by forcing information out of PayPal and RackNine? Something stinks.

Image from a Wired magazine story about robocalls aimed at voter suppression in Los Angeles www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/11/robocalls/

Sean Devlin of Truthfool Communications, who founded the ShitHarperdid.ca campaign, said recently that he didn’t trust Elections Canada to get to the bottom of the robocalls. He points out that the Conservative party was recently required to pay a paltry $52,000 fine and four of its senior officials were cleared of all charges when Elections Canada determined it had vastly overspent on its 2006 campaign: this for improperly reporting $1.3 million in advertising expenses, offenses that the judge said were “of a regulatory nature but significant to the democratic process.” Those following the youth VoteMobs last year might recall that after Sona alleged that the University of Guelph special ballot was not legitimate, Elections Canada cancelled all special ballots at universities. Not all special ballots, just those at universities. At the time, Michael Ignatieff criticized the Tories’ move to have the 700 student votes annulled as “another example of the [Conservative] party’s contempt for democracy”. The whole time the VoteMobs were surging, youth bloggers and activists noted that the Liberals, NDP and Green parties made small overtures to the growing student vote, but the phenomenon drew little response from the Conservative party…so why would they bother with 700 votes?

Of course, some deny that there’s a robocall scandal at all. Margaret Wente wrote that, “It’s ridiculous to think there was some massive cheating scheme engineered by higher-ups. We’re not Russia after all. It’s unpopular to say so, but we’re just a boring little democracy that usually functions pretty well.” (“Robo-calls? Get a grip, we’re Canadian”, The Globe and Mail, March 6). Voter turnout was higher than average in the disputed ridings, and these ridings definitely saw competitive races (“If robo-calls were designed to keep voters away, they failed miserably”, Eric Grenier, The Globe and Mail, March 5). I’d be interested in how things played out in ridings with high populations of students; I’ll bet things are anything but boring and well-functioning there. Critics like Antony Hodgson of Fair Voting BC say that the current first-past-the-post system encourages candidates to focus on only a few swing ridings, ignoring the majority of voters; given the surge of student activity, some of those ridings could have been targeted. Undeterred, Truthfool and the folks at LeadNow.ca have already assembled a petition with over 40,000 names calling for a full public inquiry and real consequences.

This week the Prime Minister stated that the Conservative Party supports stronger investigative powers for Elections Canada, but there has been a lot of debate over the extent of those powers: would the chief electoral officer be able to force parties to produce proof of their campaign spending, as the provincial counterparts would? So far, the Conservative party seems unaffected by the scandal; election fraud or wrongdoing has not been proven. Things could change drastically if an investigation digs up concrete proof like tampering with voter registration or paying for mysterious services on election day. It’s one thing to do shit, as TruthFool knows, but it’s another thing to do illegal shit.

Update:  Protesters in several cities, including Halifax, Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto, took to the streets yesterday (Sunday, March 11) demanding a public inquiry into the robocalls.

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