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crunching numbers

Voters in the Nova Scotia riding of Halifax West line up to cast their ballots the federal election on May 2, 2011.Mike Dembeck

Tales of voter suppression in the last federal election have emerged across the country. But while ridings alleged to have been targeted by these tactics were won by smaller margins than those not implicated, an analysis of these ridings indicates voter turnout was higher, not lower, than elsewhere in Canada.

In almost 70 ridings from every region of the country, allegations have been made that voters were falsely directed to polling stations by "robo-calls" or were harassed at all hours of the night by rude live callers posing as representatives of the Liberal Party. The opposition parties have blamed the Conservatives for these calls, and indeed Elections Canada has found some indication of a link between calls made in the Ontario riding of Guelph and the local Tory campaign there.

But an analysis of these ridings shows turnout averaged 61.6 per cent, slightly higher than the 60.9 per cent average turnout in ridings where no allegations of impropriety have been reported. If we only focus on the ridings in which allegations of misleading robo-calls have been made, the turnout averaged 62 per cent.

Compared to 2008, turnout increased by 4.7 per cent in these ridings. It increased by only 3.9 per cent in ridings that have not been implicated in the scandal. Turnout in neighbouring untainted ridings does not seem to have been significantly different. If these allegations of voter suppression tactics are indeed true, they do not appear to have been very successful.

Nevertheless, there is a clear difference between ridings in which misleading or harassing phone calls are alleged to have been made and ridings in which there have been no allegations of under-handed tactics.

The margin of victory in 2011 in allegation-free ridings was an average of 11,367 votes and 23.8 percentage points. In ridings where allegations of impropriety have emerged, the average margin of victory was 7,829 votes and 15.2 percentage points. In the robo-call ridings, that margin of victory was an average of only 5,791 votes and 11.6 percentage points. That these ridings were more competitive likely explains the higher degree of turnout.

But the margins of victory in 2011 are only part of the story. If a concerted effort to target closely contested ridings was made, the results of the 2008 election would have been used as a guide. For example, Frank Valeriote comfortably retained Guelph for the Liberal Party with a 6,236-vote margin of victory in May. But he had only won by 1,788 votes in 2008.

The Conservatives won Simcoe-Grey by more than 20,000 votes, but the potential split of the electorate by the candidature of Helena Guergis as an independent may have made the riding appear more vulnerable. Paul Calandra won by almost 21,000 in Oak Ridges-Markham, but the margin was only 545 votes in 2008. The Liberals held on to Kingston and the Islands with an almost 3,000-vote margin, but the retirement of longtime MP and former Speaker Peter Milliken put the seat at play. The margin of victory for the Tories in 2011 was 2,144 and 5,527 votes in Kitchener–Waterloo and Kitchener Centre, respectively, but that margin in 2008 was only 17 and 339 votes. Allegations of harassing or misleading phone calls have been made in all of these ridings.

The average margin of victory in 2008 in ridings where no allegations have been made was 10,927 votes and 25 percentage points. In ridings where allegations of misleading calls have been made, that margin was only 6,191 votes and 14.2 percentage points, not dissimilar from the 2011 results.

If the opposition hopes to reduce the Conservatives to a minority government through a series of by-elections in some of these ridings – which former chief electoral officer Jean-Pierre Kingsley has said could happen if the number of improper phone calls is found to have been larger than the margin of victory – they may be disappointed. The Tories would need to lose at least 12 seats, and the Conservative seat implicated in the allegations with the 12th narrowest margin of victory was won by over 3,000 votes.

It seems very unlikely that these alleged tactics greatly influenced the results of the 2011 election. Turnout was not much affected and the potential to overturn the outcome of the last vote appears slim. But if these allegations are true, whether or not these tactics were successfully applied will be the least of our democracy's worries.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at

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