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News

The Robocall Scandal's Vancouver Link

As Elections Canada investigation continues, complaints of calls in two ridings unfold.

By Tom Sandborn 2 Jul 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn covers labour and health policy beats for the Tyee. He welcomes your feedback and story tips at tos@infinet.net.

The robocall scandal that recently rocked Canadian politics may have Vancouver connections. At least one voter, Andrew Schofield in Vancouver South, says he received a taped call shortly before the election that falsely claimed his polling station had been moved, The Tyee has learned.

"At first I didn't pay much attention to the call," Schofield said. "It was a taped voice announcing itself as coming from Elections Canada and saying my polling station had been moved. Since we always get calls like this twice, once for me and once for Suzanne, I expected another call for her and that she would keep better track of it than I would."

("Suzanne" is Schofield's spouse, Dr. Suzanne Smythe. Full disclosure: This reporter has known Smythe and Schofield for several decades.)

"But after the election, when I heard news coverage of the robocalls events across Canada, I realized that the examples played on the radio sounded just like my call, which I knew by then had not been accurate. So we decided to report what looked like an attempt to keep us from voting."

Vancouver Quadra MP Joyce Murray also claims that during the election her campaign staff received calls from voters complaining about late night and rude callers who identified themselves as working for the Liberals.

Elections Canada continues to investigate more than 1,100 complaints about voter suppression calls during the last election, all of which are being "looked at," spokesperson John Enright told The Tyee.

'No complaints' against contractor: Young

After Smythe filed a report about the call online, she received an email apparently from the winner of the Vancouver South election, Conservative Wai Young, reading in part:

"I can confirm that my campaign in Vancouver South retained the services of Responsive Marketing Group (RMG) during the 41st General Election. RMG was contracted to make calls on behalf of the campaign to identify supporters and encourage them to vote in the election. We have no knowledge and have received no complaints that our contractor ever identified themselves as being with the Liberal Party -- or any other group -- or engaged in illegal voter suppression calls.  

"In the later stages of the election some polling stations were changed and like any other party we called our supporters to ensure that they knew exactly where to go to make their vote count. Our campaign team worked hard to ensure all voters have equal opportunity to place their votes."

Young declined to be interviewed and did not respond to emailed questions about Smythe's allegations, or about the role of robocalling in her campaign. A press aide in her office provided the Tyee with a statement from Young dated March 1, which replicated some of the language in the March 21 email sent to Schofield and Smythe. The March 1 statement does not include the text about hiring the firm RMG to inform supporters of polling stations that had been moved.

Soon after the robocalling story broke, the Vancouver Province reported that RMG, the company cited in Young's statement, has a long record of legal troubles in the United States. According to the story, the Tory-linked firm which according to Elections Canada acted for the Conservative party in 97 ridings in the last election, "... operates call centres that have repeatedly been the subject of lawsuits and complaints over its telemarketing practices."

In a statement issued on February 29, RMG said in response to allegations of misconduct that "at no time did RMG participate in voter suppression activities by providing incorrect voting locations to voters. This allegation is simply false."

On February 27, the Toronto Star reported three former RMG employees told reporters that while working on the 2011 election from the company's Thunder Bay call centre under contract to the Conservative party, they were instructed to tell voters their polling station had been moved.

According to the Star, Annette Desgagné, 46, said it became clear to her -- after so many people complained that the "new" voting locations made no sense or were "way the hell across town" -- that the live operators were, in fact, misdirecting voters.

"We're sending people to the wrong place," Desgagné recalled telling her supervisor.

'Targeted program' of voter suppression: Ekos

Schofield said that he and Smythe identified themselves as non-Conservative voters in responding to earlier calls from the local Conservative campaign. A study conducted by Ekos Research Associates looked at seven electoral ridings where legal action has been initiated by the Council of Canadians: Elmwood-Transcona, Don Valley East, Winnipeg South Centre, Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Nipissing-Timiskaming, Vancouver Island North and Yukon.

Commissioned by the council, the study found voters who previously indicated they would vote against a Conservative candidate were twice as likely as other voters to receive a suspect robocall, while voters who revealed they meant to vote Liberal were three times as likely to get such a call.

According to Ekos President Frank Graves as seen in a release on the Council of Canadians website, "... our data strongly suggests that in the subject ridings there was a targeted program of voter suppression in place... administered to tens of thousands of electors" and that "the most plausible interpretation of the evidence and tests presented here is that votes in the subject ridings were exposed to a program of voter suppression which was targeted and effective."

The Ekos research discovered that 16.9 per cent of eligible voters in the ridings studied received calls related to polling stations. Of those, 22.3 per cent were told, as was Schofield in Vancouver, of polling station location changes (amounting to 3.77 per cent of eligible voters). Of those who were told of polling station changes, the voter intentions were as follows: Liberals 32.6 per cent, Greens 28 per cent, NDP 25.6 per cent, and Conservatives 10 per cent. Around 42 per cent of eligible voters who received calls related to polling stations had a call claiming to be from Elections Canada.

"With all the evidence now submitted, we believe that there is a very strong court case to overturn the election result in the seven ridings where we are supporting legal actions," said Garry Neil, the council's executive director.

Reports of other calls

Reports of other dubious calls in Vancouver persist. On February 29, a Vancouver radio station reported allegations from federal Liberal sources that they received complaints about vote suppression calls in both Vancouver South where Schofield lives, won by Conservative Wai Young, and Vancouver Quadra, where Liberal Joyce Murray led the polls.

In a June 21 interview, Murray told The Tyee that during the election her campaign staff received calls from voters complaining about late night and rude callers who identified themselves as working for the Liberals. She said that some of the harassing calls to her constituents were from a North Dakota phone number.

"We contacted the Quadra returning officer about these complaints and our certainty they were not from our office," Murray said. "She told us she had heard other complaints about harassing phone calls during the election. There definitely was voter suppression activity in Quadra in the last election."

Murray said that at a meeting of Vancouver Quadra Liberal supporters in March, two of 30 people revealed they had received harassing, vote suppression calls during the election.

Canada's Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand told a parliamentary committee on March 29 that complaints about such calls came from over 200 different ridings.

The Elections Canada investigation is still underway.  [Tyee]

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