York Centre joins list of ridings reporting misleading robo-calls

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

A protester decries alleged voter suppression during the 2011 federal election at a small gathering on Parliament Hill on March 5, 2012. (Sean Kilpatrick/Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Voters in the Toronto-area riding of York Centre say they received misleading robo-calls before the 2011 federal ballot with the same script as the ones that Elections Canada is investigating in the Southwestern Ontario city of Guelph.

Among a flood of complaints received by Elections Canada, there are now nearly 30 ridings where voters allege receiving fraudulent calls with the same basic script as Guelph, reports compiled by the NDP and Liberals suggest.

Story continues below ad

In these constituencies – from Burlington, Ont., to Winnipeg South Centre – voters report robo-calls or live calls purporting to be from Elections Canada and falsely informing them that “due to higher than anticipated voter turnout” their polling location had been changed to a new address.

Elections Canada normally never calls voters to redirect them to different polling stations.

Broad complaints of a common call script, NDP MP Françoise Boivin says, suggest a pattern at work here – part of a coordinated campaign – rather than a series of isolated incidents.

“There is definitely a pattern that goes beyond Guelph,” Ms. Boivin said. “There’s something bizarre.”

Elections Canada has said in court filings that it believes someone linked to the Conservative campaign in Guelph tried to suppress the vote for rival candidates on May 2, 2011.

The watchdog alleges that a political operative hiding behind the alias “Pierre Poutine” engineered an off-the-books scheme using a disposable cellphone to discourage opposition voters from casting ballots in Guelph.

The Conservatives have repeatedly beat back allegations of a wider scheme outside Guelph.

Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey Thursday criticized what he called “exaggerated allegations” about fraudulent calls in the campaign, warning they “demean millions of voters who cast legitimate votes in the last election.”

In York Centre, where incumbent Liberal MP Ken Dryden lost to a Conservative challenger by more than 6,300 votes, the Liberals say they’ve now verified at least 12 complaints of misleading calls. They say many more complaints were forwarded to Elections Canada following the May 2 ballot last year.

Eduardo Harari, a Liberal supporter in the riding, said he received a call from Conservatives during the election campaign asking him if they could count on his support. He indicated he was going to vote Liberal.

Mr. Harari said his home subsequently received eight robo-calls, starting on April 21, 2011, falsely claiming his polling station had been moved. The last one came on May 2. He has a record of all the calls – which came from an unidentified number – on his phone bill.

He said he believes the calls were part of a “giant campaign” to suppress votes.

He said the calls, which were a recording of a woman speaking in both English and then French, said the polling station had been relocated to a suite at 3100 Wilson Ave.

Mr. Harari, who is Jewish, also received a call on a Saturday, the Sabbath, from someone purporting to be from the Liberal Party and asking for his support. The Ken Dryden campaign assured him it had nothing to do with it.

In the face of continuing opposition pressure on the robo-call matter, the Conservative government has publicly committed to backing an NDP motion calling for Elections Canada to be granted more investigative power.

On Thursday the Conservatives also left the impression they would support an NDP amendment to the motion that would allow these powers to be applied to investigations already underway.

A vote on the non-binding resolution is expected as early as Monday, but the Harper government is being coy on precisely what legislation it might enact after the motion passes.

Mr. Harari said the Sabbath message that falsely claimed to be from the Liberal campaign didn’t ask him for anything, such as whether he would put up a lawn sign or attend an event.

The Conservative Party’s Mr. DeLorey said the onus is on the Liberals to prove the so-called fake Liberal calls did not in fact come from their own get-out-the-vote telephone campaign.

“The opposition paid millions of dollars to make hundreds of thousands of phone calls,” Mr. DeLorey said. “Before continuing these baseless smears they should prove that their own callers are not behind these reports.”