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Michael Sona arrives at the Guelph courthouse for his sentencing after being found guilty of election fraud in the so-called robocalls scandal during the 2011 federal election in Guelph, Ont., on Wednesday.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Nine months in jail. Michael Sona, a former Conservative campaign worker, will get that for trying to deceive and dissuade Guelph voters from casting ballots by placing misleading robocalls. The sentence is supposed to be a deterrent.

It is a relatively stiff sentence for an elections offence, which typically net fines, or probation. The judge decided Mr. Sona's "moral blameworthiness" is high. This is a serious crime.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government has always insisted that Mr. Sona is an outlier, that this is an isolated case. But there have been quite a number of isolated cases now.

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The party was convicted in the in-and-out scandal, a cabinet minister resigned over egregious campaign-finance violations, and Peterborough MP Dean Del Mastro, who resigned this month, was convicted of covering up election overspending. He too faces possible jail time.

In Mr. Sona's case, there was always the suggestion – including from both prosecution and defence in the trial – that the young campaign worker, now 26, didn't act alone when he misdirected voters to a false balloting location during the 2011 election. But no one else was charged, let alone convicted. An example was made of Mr. Sona.

Mr. Harper's government says it is not to blame, and suggests culprits deserve to have the book thrown at them. Mr. Harper's communications director, Jason MacDonald, said voter suppression is a serious crime "and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law."

"As we've said all along, the Conservative Party ran a clean and ethical campaign. The party was not involved with this conduct that was subject of the case in Guelph."

By party, Mr. MacDonald apparently means the party leadership, because Mr. Sona was a Conservative campaign worker when the crime occurred, and when the allegations surfaced, he was an aide to Conservative MP Eve Adams.

Distancing has been a key tactic for the government when these elections-law breaches have come up.

When Mr. Del Mastro was convicted, Mr. MacDonald noted the MP had left the Conservative caucus months earlier, when he was charged. Of course, no one at Conservative Party HQ told Mr. Del Mastro to illegally overspend during the 2008 election campaign and ask for backdated invoices to cover it up. But he was a Conservative MP, and later, the PM's parliamentary secretary.

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Politically, the Conservatives have so far wrestled these cases down to minimally damaging one-offs. But the one-offs are starting to pile up.

Remember Peter Penashue? He was Stephen Harper's intergovernmental affairs minister after the 2011 election. He was dogged for months by allegations he took illegal donations and free flights and overspent the campaign limit. The Conservatives said little.

But Mr. Penashue finally resigned in 2013, paid back $47,666 in illegal donations – more than the total amount spent during the campaign by his Liberal rival, Todd Russell, whom he bested by 79 votes – and then ran for re-election. He lost.

You could count them as isolated incidents. But not the first big one, the in-and-out scandal from the 2006 election, when senior party officials created a scheme to overspend the national campaign limit by transferring money to local campaigns, and then have them pay for national-campaign advertising.

The Conservatives insisted it was legal, and other parties had done similar things. The party eventually pleaded guilty, in 2012, but by then it was old news. Even the Conservatives didn't really believe that the in-and-out scheme was within the spirit of elections law. They just thought they'd found a loophole.

When Elections Canada officials questioned it, the Conservatives felt it was unfair, believing Liberals had played dirty pool for years. They were really offended. Perhaps that has nothing to do with the later cases. But it didn't set a tone of election-law probity.

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Perhaps now, the Conservatives would do better to express a little shame for the stain on their reputation, and vow to prevent repeats. Their supporters won't be reassured by the sight of their party workers going to jail.

Now Mr. Sona, an overzealous young party worker who decided it was okay to play telephone tag with voters' rights, will pay a stiff price. It's hard not to feel sorry for a young man facing jail. But it's clear a deterrent is needed.

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