The top organizer of the Fight HST campaign says Elections BC is using intimidation tactics to derail recall efforts, after the non-partisan agency revealed it has asked the RCMP to investigate the conduct of seven canvassers involved in the group's anti-tax petition.
Fight HST made B.C. history earlier this year when it succeeded in using the province's initiative process to force a referendum on the harmonized sales tax, using a formal petition process that was signed by more than half a million British Columbians.
But a report on Monday from Elections BC showed the campaign struggled to uphold the rules.
Last week, Elections BC sent out reprimands to 2,208 voters for signing the petition more than once - some signed as many as four times. Craig James, acting chief electoral officer, said he was more disturbed by the conduct of canvassers who did not uphold their obligations, which included making sure that voters knew they could not sign more than once.
"Canvassers have a responsibility because they have been told they have a responsibility and they have agreed to accept the responsibility," he told reporters in Victoria. He said he forwarded the complaints to the RCMP last Wednesday, at the same time that warning letters were sent out to voters.
Mr. James would not give details of the alleged violations, though he did give one example of a canvasser who had submitted multiple copies of a signed petition sheet.
"This is not a light matter for the chief electoral officer to embark upon but I think I have an obligation … to be vigilant and enforce that legislation," Mr. James said.
Under the Recall and Initiative Act, violations of the rules can result in fines of up to $10,000 and up to two years in jail.
"Going after citizens, little old ladies, perhaps young mothers … is an absolutely appalling tactic that is designed to intimidate people from proceeding with the recall campaign," said Chris Delaney, lead organizer for Fight HST.
He said the alleged wrongdoing cited by Elections BC may have been a result of dirty tricks by opponents seeking to scuttle the campaign. Or, he suggested, some canvassers may not have been sharp enough to follow the rules.
"Anyone could be doing this who is maybe not as smart as some people, or maybe marginally mentally challenged or something and accidentally makes too many copies of something," he said.
"This is a citizens' petition and people are participating at a citizen level, so they are not sophisticated professionals." He said it was Elections BC's job to verify the signatures and even after tossing out more than 100,000 names, there were still enough valid signatures to force the government to respond. "So what's the problem?"
There were more than 6,500 registered canvassers for the Fight HST petition, including a number of B.C. New Democratic Party MLAs. Bruce Ralston, the NDP finance critic, said Mr. James has acted appropriately by forwarding any concerns to the police. "If there are allegations, they have to be investigated," he said. He noted, however, that concerns with seven canvassers out of 6,500 is not an alarming pattern.
The report was released just one week before the Fight HST operation is allowed to launch recall efforts against government MLAs.
Under B.C. law, citizens can force an MLA to face a by-election if enough valid signatures can be gathered in their constituency. Fight HST has said it will target government MLAs in ridings where it has the greatest number of canvassers signed up to collect signatures.
The aim is to force the province to fast-track a referendum on the tax, currently set to take place in September, 2011.