On Friday, in the so-called 'Robo-call' case, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that electoral fraud had indeed been committed by Conservatives in six ridings across Canada, but did not find grounds to throw out any election results and therefore dismissed the case. An appeal to the Supreme Court seems likely, especially since Federal Court Judge Robert Mosley – unusually – awarded court costs to the loser. He seems to have been making a point.
"Misleading calls about the locations of polling stations were made to electors in ridings across the country, including the subject ridings, and the purpose of those calls was to suppress the votes of electors who had indicated their voting preference in response to earlier voter identification calls," Judge Mosley wrote. However, he added, "the voter suppression effort was geographically widespread but, apart from Guelph (Ont.), thinly scattered."
So the finding is basically that the Robo-calls scandal of 2011 was illegal but not a national conspiracy. To anyone with experience of the inside of Canadian election machinery (about 200,000 of us every federal election), the decision is on-target but very disturbing. It should disturb every Canadian.
Your correspondent served as a Provincial Returning Officer in two Ontario general elections (2007 and 2011) and a by-election (2010). Returning Officers don't talk much outside their circle – if only because other peoples' eyes tend to glaze over when they do – but there is certainly a body of lore about what stunts have been pulled in which ridings in living memory and it gets swapped in the halls at training sessions.
There are ridings where certain shenanigans (yes, acts of fraud) are practically traditional. Just two anecdotes from a multitude: one party is known locally for busing in homeless people from elsewhere with something that looks enough like ID to get them past the hapless registration agents at the polls. Since thousands of people have access to voters' lists on polling day, both in the party organizations and the returning office, keeping them out of the hands of people who may do improper things with them is nearly impossible.
In our riding, partisan relationships were very civil. Nonetheless, a year before 2011 and Robo-calls, we had 'robo-flyers.' Some character from some organization – we never found out who or which – peppered a large downtown housing development with misdirecting flyers on election eve. We had to strip an overstretched returning office to put people into the field to try to find all the bogus flyers and replace them with corrections. It was really picayune, but whoever did it sure had the spirit.
Apropos of which, Judge Mosley balanced his finding by noting that "the scale of the fraud has to be kept in perspective." It's not the scale of Robo-call that's disturbing, though. It's the fact that a number of – apparently midlevel – party apparatchiks felt morally empowered to do the kinds of things they apparently did, and were able to do them.
However high-tech this particular set of tricks may have been, on the face of it what the investigations were turning up appeared to be sporadic and unco-ordinated. The difference between this and all other tricks is that it was enabled by an entirely new level of technological capacity, in this case the Conservative CIMS voter database. Big Data breeds Big Power, and if the will to misuse it is there, anywhere, it will be misused.
Robo-call 2011 was probably a maverick activity. But when you line it up with other activity (like $90,000 personal cheques written to Senators, and expense-account frauds, and relentless control of 'messaging,' and a general take-no-prisoners approach to politics), you find a mindset that feeds on itself, is self-reinforcing – 'we have the right to get away with whatever we can get away with and nobody can stop us' – that has the potential to become dangerous and that no legislation or regulation can control.
No political system can exist without conventions among all major actors. The moment any actor places itself beyond convention, we are on the steep slope into anarchy.
It gets worse. As we're increasingly finding out, 'robo-calling' activity falls under the broad rubric of cyber-warfare. What happened in 2011 was done 'at home' without benefit of hackery, but experiences since 2011 with international hacker collectives, whether based in Shanghai, or Damascus, or a kid's basement in suburban London, show that cyber-assault knows no boundaries. At this point any major political party could have control of their database taken away from them by parties unknown anywhere on Earth and might not be any the wiser.
That's the stuff real elections nightmares are made of.
Eric Morse is a former member of the Canadian Department of External Affairs. He now lives and writes on international political themes in Toronto, and is writing a book on of Roman politics and geopolitics.