The Robocalling Scandal

During last spring's federal election, Anthony Rota, a LIBERAL MP fighting for his political life in the northern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming, didn't pay much attention to the odd report of strange phone calls to some of his supporters. He heard a few complaints about obnoxious calls from what his campaign concluded were opponents masquerading as Liberals to annoy voters. Then on May 2, election day, some voters took calls, purporting to come from Elections Canada, misdirecting them to phony polling locations. It wasn't until he heard news last week of similar widespread incidents that Rota woke up to the possibility of something beyond local dirty tricks. "I started thinking, 'Okay, maybe this wasn't isolated,' " he says.

So did many others. The pattern Rota describes was echoed, with variations, in accounts from more than a dozen ridings. But his case stood out: Rota lost to CONSERVATIVE Jay Aspin by an ultra-thin margin of 18 votes. In Nipissing-Timiskaming, at least, the possibility that bogus calls resulted in even a handful of lost votes is clearly consequential. Overall, though, the uproar was less about the impact fake calls might have had on outcomes than what the controversy says about the state of Canadian politics--especially the way Stephen Harper's Conservatives play the game. Bob RAE, the interim Liberal leader, labelled current Tory political culture "Nixonian." The Prime Minister's 2011 campaign manager, Jenni Byrne, insisted Conservatives won with "clean and ethical" politics, although she hinted that stray local operatives might have done wrong.

It's a good bet the truth lies somewhere between Rae's vintage Watergate intimations and Byrne's broad denial. The focus of the spreading story, broken by journalists with the Ottawa Citizen and Postmedia, is Elections Canada's ongoing investigation into calls received by voters in Guelph, Ont., falsely telling them their polling locations had changed. Last November, the federal agency's investigators used a court order to get detailed information about those Guelph calls from RackNine Inc., an Edmonton technology company the Conservatives used extensively to send out automated recorded messages--often referred to as "robocalls." After the robocalls story exploded, a Conservative staffer who worked on the Guelph campaign lost his job with a Tory MP, although the party declined to explain exactly why.

The Guelph revelations prompted Liberal and NDP campaigners to revisit similar incidents across the country. At least one Conservative, Ontario MP Dean Del Mastro, also said he was targeted by fake calls; so did GREEN Leader Elizabeth MAY. Some reports involved recorded robocalls. Others said messages came from call centres, where live humans read political scripts to voters unlucky enough to pick up the phone. As well, some candidates heard from supporters who took harassing calls, apparently from partisan operatives pretending to represent their rivals.

All these variations look like ugly outgrowths of the way campaigns legitimately cultivate and exploit databases of voters' phone numbers, addresses and political leanings. A new book published by University of British Columbia Press, Political Marketing in Canada , analyzes the state of that art. It cites Patrick Muttart, a key Conservative strategist and Harper's former deputy chief of staff, as seeing the "direct voter contact campaign" as an under-reported aspect of electioneering, overshadowed by flashier elements like advertising and media coverage. Muttart is also quoted saying national and local campaigns are "increasingly a fused effort."

Federal campaigning has been evolving in this direction since 1993, when Elections Canada first provided parties with electronic voter lists. "This would come to revolutionize the ability of campaigns to organize, encourage the redirection of resources into the development of campaign management software," writes Alex Marland, a political science professor at Newfoundland's Memorial University, in Political Marketing In Canada. In another chapter, André Turcotte, a communications professor at Ottawa's Carleton University, and a former Reform party pollster from the late 1990s, writes that "the use of such electronic data would later be mastered by the Harper Conservatives, whose constituent information management system (CIMS) database was used for direct voter contact and fundraising." Turcotte calls the Tory approach "hyper-segmentation"--an obsession with tracking voters in such detail that local campaigners would know exactly what doorbells to ring on "highly targeted 'walk routes.' "

The positive side of that sort of data-rich campaigning is that parties are better at reminding their likely supporters to get out and vote. The negative side is the potential for harassing or misleading the supporters of rival parties. That's where the question of how RackNine's services were used comes in. In an interview with RackNine's president, Matt Meier, he said his firm's role has been misunderstood. Yes, he's a Conservative and sold automated calling services to Conservatives during the 2011 campaign. No, he was not involved in tactics. "I do not," Meier said, "provide any kind of messaging advice."

Meier said he has co-operated "proactively" with Elections Canada. But he noted that the agency's investigators have asked only for information about Guelph--not about any other Conservative campaign's automated calls that his firm sent out. Justin Matthews, RackNine's lawyer, said Elections Canada might not have had enough time yet to follow up on the flood of complaints that came in after its Guelph investigation hit the news. He said the court order RackNine received from Elections Canada concerning Guelph was "very detailed." "One can presume that to make such a request takes some investigation," Matthews said. "It would take some time to catch up."

In fact, how long it might take to sort out this metastasizing affair is an open question. Elections Canada fielded 1,003 complaints during the last election, and says it is still looking into "several," including "crank calls designed to discourage voting." It offers no more detail. Democracy Watch, an advocacy group for more open government, complains that Elections Canada has not reported publicly on the results of investigations into 2,280 complaints in the past four elections.

A swift resolution isn't likely. Elections Canada's last big probe, into the 2006 campaign's complex "in and out" affair, was resolved only last fall, when Conservatives pleaded guilty to exceeding spending limits. Remarkably, after agreeing to pay $52,000 in fines in that case, the party called it "a big victory." It was hardly that, but didn't appear terribly damaging, seen in isolation. Obstructing a person's right to vote--the violation of the Canada Elections Act that misleading calls might represent--carries a maximum penalty of a $5,000 fine and five years in prison. The political price a party tarnished for such a violation above its lowest ranks would pay is harder to calculate.

Maclean's March 12, 2012