PARLIAMENT HILL—New technology lets political parties target specific voters for automated calls, but is plagued by scandals and privacy concerns.
Meanwhile, voter turnout continues to decline.
Former Conservative staffer Michael Sona was charged Tuesday in relation to the robocall scandal that saw some voters receive misleading phone calls during the 2011 General Election.
Elections Canada issued a statement saying Sona, who worked on Conservative candidate Marty Burke’s campaign in Guelph, Ontario, “wilfully prevented or endeavoured to prevent an elector from voting at an election.”
The charge stems from thousands of automated calls that claimed to be from Elections Canada directing voters to an incorrect ballot location in Guelph. A similar incident in the U.S. in 2006 led to voters being misinformed about polling station changes in Kansas and Virginia, perhaps giving the Canadian perpetrator the idea.
The scandal surrounding the robocalls has dogged the Conservative Party since the election, though other parties also broke the rules. Fred DeLorey, director of communications for the Conservatives, welcomed the charge against Sona.
“The Conservative Party of Canada ran a clean and ethical campaign and does not tolerate such activity,” he said in a statement.
Delorey pledged anyone involved in making the calls would be barred from participating in future Tory campaigns.
“Voter suppression is extremely serious and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” he said.
Hunting for Poutine
Elections Canada likely appreciates that sentiment, but the agency also wants more powers to go after rule breakers and stiffer penalties for those convicted.
The single charge against Sona was a long time coming and made difficult by Elections Canada’s lack of teeth when it comes to compelling witnesses to provide information, says a report released by the organization last week.
Some of the difficulty was the length to which the perpetrator(s) of the calls went to hide their identity. That included buying prepaid Visa cards to register a Paypal account under a fake name in order to get a disposable cellphone registered to the comically named Pierre Poutine, which was then used to launch the calls. Communications to the voice broadcast server were also made through a proxy server to hide the perpetrator’s IP address.
The Public Prosecution Service of Canada is on the case now, and will have many of the powers Elections Canada wished it had had.
While that case could go on for months or years, Sona is now facing prison time, possibly five years. Or he could feel compelled to strike a deal for a reduced sentence, in which case details could emerge more quickly.
It looks unlike Sona—who denies the charge—acted alone if he was involved, because he lacked access to the database used to make the calls, according to reporting from Postmedia.
Whatever happens in Sona’s case, Elections Canada doesn’t want a repeat in the next election. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand issued a report on the robocalls last week calling for legislative changes to prevent such incidents in the future.
He said new technology helps parties and candidates reach voters and provides electors with more information, but comes with the need for privacy guarantees, better investigative powers for Elections Canada, and punishments severe enough to dissuade future Pierre Poutines.
If steps aren’t taken, scandal-plagued elections could hurt Canadians’ trust in the integrity of elections, the report notes.
“The line separating conduct that is a normal part of a healthy and vigorous electoral competition from conduct that undermines the legitimacy of the election is at risk of becoming increasingly blurred and uncertain,” reads the report.
Part of the solution lies in political parties themselves. Elections Canada wants parties to adopt codes of conduct that would disavow the unsavoury actions of Mr. Poutine.
But fines of $250,000 or five years in jail would help as well, the report points out. Otherwise, parties might look at fines as simply the cost of doing business.
“There is a real danger that participants will increasingly take the position that it is more advantageous to ignore the rules than to respect them, particularly if they are under the impression that their opponents are not abiding by these rules,” the report says.
That may have been the case in Guelph where both candidates were accused of making improper robocalls.
While it is Burke’s campaign that Sona worked for, winning Liberal candidate Frank Valeriote admitted his campaign launched a robocall attack that didn’t tell call recipients who it was from. The recorded message told recipients to vote Liberal because the Conservative candidate was anti-abortion. The volunteer who placed the calls used a fake name.
In addition to a long list of other new rules, Elections Canada wants to make certain all calls in the future identify who they are from and that they are approved by the candidate.
But even if all parties do play by the rules, Elections Canada and the privacy commissioner are still worried about the vast databases employed during elections.
MPs have given themselves access to large amounts of voter information through an act of Parliament, while not obligating themselves to the same restrictions as other groups and government agencies.
These voter lists contain the name, address, and numerical identifier of each elector. MPs don’t have to protect or control access to the personal information the lists contain. Only the parties themselves, and the contractors they hire to carry out telemarketing and other activities, know how exactly the information is used.
A report commissioned by the privacy commissioner raises the concern that these databases could get into the wrong hands and be used for identity theft, harassment, or denial of services and rights.
The robocall scandal comes as voter turnout reaches record lows, despite hotly fought elections and, in 2011, a dynamic political landscape that saw the NDP claim Official Opposition party status for the first time.
Part of the reason for that disinterest is voters have no idea what politicians do for them, nor how public policy affects the services and capital investments they use on a daily basis, notes Paul Kershaw, a professor at the University of British Columbia and founder of Generation Squeeze.
Kershaw is working to address apathy among young voters and his research has found that many voters trust politicians less than used car salesmen.
“When we have a political culture in which our politicians become punchlines instead of persons to respect, the last things we need is to have scandals where there is evidence our parties are trying to deter people from getting to the ballot box,” he said.
Although robocalling is not a problem in and of itself, said Kershaw, negative campaigning is, and election abuses will hurt public faith in elections.
Elections Canada is also worried. While public trust in elections remains strong, that could change if future scandals are met with long investigations like this one, or the failure to punish the wrongdoers, according to the report.
“Ultimately, what is at stake is the ability of the electoral process to play its fundamental role of legitimizing political power,” the report says.