The poorly named “robo-call” scandal continues apace in Ottawa, the latest development being an ill-timed call for a royal commission by the Interim Liberal Leader, Bob Rae. Perhaps it was just another bit of throwaway dialogue in the political theatre surrounding the issue, but launching a commission of inquiry while Elections Canada is still busy with its investigation is an obvious non-starter.
A more promising development this week was the unanimous, all-party support for a motion giving Elections Canada more powers to, among other things, monitor spending by political parties. That’s a long-standing request from Elections Canada. Whether the proposed amendments will be passed into law remains to be seen, but if this is one of the outcomes of the affair, then that will be its silver lining.
A less positive outcome would be a tarnishing of the practice of robo-calling. It is perfectly legal for political parties to arrange automated calls to voters. It’s a good way to rally party members or inform them of meetings. The scandal is that someone falsely identifying himself as an Elections Canada official used automated phone calls to mislead voters into thinking their polling station had been moved on the eve of the federal election of 2011. Attempting to prevent a person from voting is a violation of the Elections Canada Act that is punishable by fine and even jail. Calling this a “robo-call scandal” makes as much sense as calling it a “post office scandal,” had the same misdeed been committed by letter.
This leads to a final thought: Elections Canada would quite simply never use automated phone calls to inform voters of a change of polling station, last-minute or otherwise. Voters learn of the location of their polling station from an information card mailed to their homes. If a polling station needs to be moved during the course of an election campaign, an updated information card is sent out. And if a polling station needs to be changed at the last moment, this will only be the result of a calamity such as a fire or flood, and voters will find out about it when they arrive at the polling station and are directed elsewhere by a clearly identified Elections Canada official.
What’s needed, then, is a vigorous campaign by Elections Canada informing Canadians that if someone robo-calls them, or e-mails them or texts them or drops leaflets on their home from an airplane, to say their polling station has moved, they should ignore the message and immediately contact Elections Canada and provide whatever damning details they can. This would bring an end to the practice more effectively than any royal commission.