OTTAWA — Canada's elections watchdog called the possibility of voter suppression during the last election "outrageous,'' revealing Thursday that investigators are examining 800 complaints of misleading telephone calls from right across the country.
Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand emphasized how seriously his office was taking the complaints as he testified before a House of Commons committee.
"I think it's absolutely outrageous — whether it was organized, or bigger, or whatever, the fact that electors at least that we know of in Guelph, were misdirected by calls falsely made on behalf of Elections Canada is absolutely outrageous, should not be tolerated,'' Mayrand told MPs in a packed committee room.
"It's totally unacceptable in a modern democracy.''
Mayrand was unable to provide specific details on the investigations out of concern for fairness and privacy, but he added a few new pieces of information:
— 800 complaints being examined by the commissioner of Canada elections come from 10 provinces and one territory;
— The complaints cover 200 ridings; and,
— The commissioner opened 250 files, and several complaints can be lumped together in a single file.
The Conservatives had initially approached the robocall controversy by acknowledging there were serious allegations in a single riding in Guelph, Ont., where voters received misleading calls from an individual known only as Pierre Poutine.
Since then, many Canadians have come forward in the media, describing how they were given erroneous or non-existent polling station information before the vote on May 2.
At the committee, the Conservatives focused on the accuracy of the voters list at election time and the fact that up to 14 per cent of the addresses on the list might be erroneous on voting day.
Political parties match up their own databases, which include phone numbers, with the voters list from Elections Canada, which only contains names and addresses. Candidates and their teams often call their supporters on election day to encourage them to vote.
"What really strikes me is that if there's really an alligator under the bed, I wonder if it isn't simply a widespread problem with trying to figure out where people actually live in order to contact them,'' said Conservative MP Scott Reid.
But Mayrand pointed out that inadvertently misdirecting a voter to the wrong polling station because of a database error does not explain why voters were receiving calls from individuals purporting to be from Elections Canada.
Elections Canada does not call voters to tell them their polling station has changed. He also underlined that the parties have been asked not to inform voters of polling station changes, but to leave that to Elections Canada.
Mayrand bristled when Dean Del Mastro, the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, asked about allegations that Elections Canada has been leaking information to the media about the robocall investigations.
"Another case of vague allegation here. No, but seriously, seriously, again, there's no source leaking from Elections Canada if that's the allegation, I can attest to that,'' Mayrand said.
"I think some should be checking their sources.''
Conservative MP Laurie Hawn referred to the robocall affair and the media attention around it as a "circus,'' focusing in on the fact so many of the complaints were lodged well after the election.
"That's my biggest personal concern in all of this, that this circus, and it's a circus ... has served to do nothing but unfortunately degrade the trust of Canadians in the system,'' Hawn said.
When asked by reporters whether the robocall affair had been overblown, Mayrand responded directly.
"I think it's a serious matter, and I'm glad to see that it concerns Canadians, honestly. It's essential to the way we govern ourselves,'' Mayrand said.
"It touches on the fundamentals of our democracy ... how we elect our representatives. I can't see anything more serious than that in our democratic institutions.''
NDP MP David Christopherson said Mayrand's testimony proved that the robocall issue isn't confined to a single riding.
"The suggestion by the government that somehow this is a circus created by the opposition is quite frankly insulting, it's insulting to all the Canadians who cherish our electoral system and want our integrity of it preserved,'' Christopherson told reporters.
The committee approved a motion to hear from Mayrand again before the summer parliamentary break.