Canada’s chief electoral officer is rejecting any attempts to play down the extent of the voter-suppression tactics in the last election, expressing his outrage for the first time in public about fraudulent robo-calls made in the name of his impartial organization.
“It’s absolutely outrageous,” Marc Mayrand told a parliamentary committee. “It’s totally unacceptable in a modern democracy.”
Elections Canada has received complaints about phone fraud in the last election in about 200 ridings in 10 provinces and one territory. Mr. Mayrand said the complaints “cut pretty much across the whole country.”
It was the first indication from Elections Canada about the breadth of the complaints of automated and live calls that aimed to disrupt last year’s general election.
“To say the least, it’s unusual,” Mr. Mayrand said of the number and scope of the complaints.
Mr. Mayrand walked a fine line during his testimony, refusing to get into the details of ongoing investigations that are being probed by the Commissioner of Elections, while providing an update to MPs about his handling of the ongoing controversy.
He said that overall, Elections Canada has received 800 specific complaints about misleading or harassing phone calls across Canada in relation to the last election. He pointed out that 70 of the complaints came from Guelph, which is only a fraction of almost 7,000 misleading calls made on election day in the riding.
Mr. Mayrand also specifically urged political parties to stop contacting voters about changing poll locations during elections, adding that it is best for Elections Canada to handle that process through normal written procedures.
Mr. Mayrand added that all voters can register on site on election day, stating it provides a “safety valve” to deal with the inaccuracies.
While the Conservative MPs on the parliamentary committee repeatedly said they did not want to “minimize” the importance of the fraudulent calls, they continuously came back to the fact that the Elections Canada voters’ list is filled with mistakes.
“There is a widespread problem here,” said Conservative MP Scott Reid.
The committee of procedure and house affairs has already re-invited Mr. Mayrand to come back before Parliament breaks for the summer.
In his opening statement on Thursday, Mr. Mayrand promised two reports to Parliament to deal with the current controversy. The first report will deal with recent evolutions in technology and issues such as robo-calls and social media, and their growing impact on elections, to be delivered within a year.
Secondly, Mr. Mayrand said before the next election (scheduled for 2015), he will make a report on weaknesses in the penalties that can be imposed when it comes to breaches of the Elections Act. In particular, Elections Canada is seeking the ability to levy administrative fines, which is easier to do legally than going through the court system in each case.
Mr. Mayrand also addressed what he called widespread misinformation about allegations of wrongdoing, saying that the media has reported misleading information about voter-identification issues in one Ontario riding. Mr. Mayrand said after looking into hundreds of allegations in one Toronto-area riding, only three questionable registrations of voters were found.
Mr. Mayrand was speaking in public for the first time on the issue of thousands of fraudulent and harassing phone calls that were made during last year’s general election. The issue jumped to the forefront of the political agenda with the recent publication of details of the investigation into the riding of Guelph, where political operatives went through a company linked to the Conservative Party to send out thousands of calls directing electors to the wrong polling station.
Elections Canada has been on the trace of the person behind the calls, who used a disposable cell phone registered under the alias of “Pierre Poutine” to set up an account with robo-caller RackNine Inc.
Elections Canada initially decided to refuse to comment on the investigation, only to go on to issue a statement stating that it had received 31,000 contacts from Canadians in relation to the 2011 general election.
The statement was wrongly understood to mean that the majority of the contacts were individual complaints, which would have been a huge increase in comparison to previous ballots. However, Elections Canada later stated that 700 specific complaints had been received.
Those numbers have now been updated to refer to 40,000 contacts, and 800 specific complaints.