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Professor Tom Flanagan in his office at the University of Calgary's Department of Political Science.LARRY MACDOUGAL/The Canadian Press

How much does Stephen Harper's Conservative Party know about you?

Attention is focusing on the massive database of Canadian voters called the Constituency Information Management System (CIMS), which was created and expanded under Mr. Harper's leadership of the Conservative Party. Critics of the Tories claim the database must have been used by the as-yet-unknown people behind alleged 2011 campaign calls aimed at annoying and misleading opposition party supporters.

But former Conservative campaign manager Tom Flanagan, described by a Tory campaign veteran as "the godfather of CIMS," says his cherished database is getting a bad rap.

"It's completely non-sinister," said Mr. Flanagan, who explained the uses and limits of a database that is now nearly 10 years old.

What is it?

The CIMS is a massive database with information on millions of Canadians. It was started from scratch after the Canadian Alliance and the federal Tories merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. All parties use databases to track supporters, but the Conservatives are considered to have the largest and most effective. The CIMS measures the degree to which individuals support the Conservative Party and includes data on whether they are a member, when and how much they've contributed, what policy issues they are interested in, whether they will volunteer and whether they will take a lawn sign. The individual entries can be matched with census data that would show information about their neighbourhood, such as average income, age and ethnic profile.

Where does the information come from?

At its core, the database builds on names and addresses from the Elections Canada voters' list and numbers from the phone book. Then, details are added. Much of the subjective information in the database comes from years of work by a Toronto-based telemarketing company called Responsive Marketing Group. The company does live phone calls on contract for the Conservatives to identify potential supporters and their priorities. Other data come from phone calls and door knocking by local party volunteers. How Canadians respond to party flyers and brochures will also affect what's reported in the database. While parties could purchase consumer data about the spending habits of specific neighbourhoods, Mr. Flanagan says that information was never added to the database when he was with the party.

How is it used?

The main reason for the database is for GOTV – what parties refer to as "Get Out The Vote" efforts. Once supporters are identified, parties can offer rides to the polls or make phone calls reminding them to vote. But CIMS is also behind the crowds of Tory supporters who pop up on short notice to Mr. Harper's public events and announcements. Only strong Tory supporters are invited. Also, the Conservatives are the most successful fundraisers and CIMS is a big part of that.

Could it be connected to voter-suppression allegations?

When the main purpose of a database is to identify supporters and get them to vote, it stands to reason that lists of non-supporters could be used to launch tactics to dissuade them from voting. High-level Conservatives acknowledge that may be possible, but are adamant that voter suppression was not condoned and would not be worth the political risk. The database was designed so that local campaigns could access and update the data for their riding, but not others. The national party can access the entire database. Mr. Flanagan said there is a middle level of access that applies to regional campaign managers who can access a group of ridings.

"This is a tragedy that [CIMS]is getting a bad name because of possibly some abuses," Mr. Flanagan said. "I think it's a fantastic advance over the age of mass politics, when everything was advertising. … If it's done well, it encourages participation and interest in politics and gives people an actual connection to the party."


Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misstated the parties that merged to form the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003. This version has been corrected.

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