OTTAWA - Residents of a Toronto riding were still unclear Tuesday just who is their true member of Parliament after Canada's high court reserved judgment in a first-of-its-kind electoral dispute with the country's democratic process at its heart.
The Supreme Court of Canada justices spent half the day listening to arguments over a Conservative MP's appeal of a lower-court ruling that tossed out the result of last year's federal election in Etobicoke Centre.
But despite high hopes of a ruling from the bench, the dispute — Tory MP Ted Opitz in one corner, defeated Liberal incumbent Borys Wrzesnewskyj in the other — remained unresolved as the justices retired to mull over their verdict.
Wrzesnewskyj, who brought the original suit in the lower courts, described the case as vital to the ongoing health of — and public confidence in — Canada's voting system.
If the high court upholds the lower ruling, Prime Minister Stephen Harper would have six months to call a byelection, although Wrzesnewskyj said the vote should be held as soon as possible.
"Should we win this case, it's incumbent on the prime minister to act immediately," he said outside the courtroom.
"Democracy requires it. We can't have this situation where we don't know who the representative is."
Waiting the full six months would set "a terrible precedent," he added.
Wrzesnewskyj lost to his Conservative challenger by just 26 votes, but the defeated Liberal went to court, claiming procedural irregularities.
Earlier this year, an Ontario Superior Court judge found that Elections Canada officials made clerical errors at the polls. Justice Thomas Lederer threw out 79 votes, enough to overturn the original result.
Opitz countered by filing a first-time-ever appeal with the Supreme Court of Canada.
"At stake is the election," Opitz said after the hearing. "So if it's overturned, there's a potential byelection, and we'll go to that."
Only five other election results have been nullified by the courts since 1949. None of those rulings were appealed and byelections were quickly called to re-determine the will of the people in each riding.
Opitz's lawyer, Kent Thomson, argued that the voting rights of people in Etobicoke Centre were trampled by simple record-keeping errors.
"It's hard to think that a constitutional right of this importance could hang by so fine a thread," he told the court.
The election result was overturned on the grounds that paperwork was not properly filled out for voters who needed someone to vouch for their identity or who were left off the list of electors.
In his ruling, Lederer specifically stressed the irregularities were the result of clerical errors by well-meaning Elections Canada officials, not the product of fraud or intentional wrongdoing.
Since then, however, Wrzesnewskyj has resurrected other more serious allegations of ballot-box stuffing and voter suppression by Opitz's campaign, though nothing has been proven.
"People lost their franchise, they lose their right to vote. When people lose their right to vote, an election is not free," Wrzesnewskyj said.
"When ballots end up in the box that shouldn't have been there because someone showed up without ID and without proper vouching was allowed to vote, or people were allowed to vote even though they weren't registered, that's not a fair election.
"Elections cannot be free if they're not fair, and they cannot be fair if they're not free."
It has been just over a year since the last federal election, one that has become known almost as much for allegations of electoral fraud in Guelph, Ont., as for the way it redrew the House of Commons.<br><br> <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/news/robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">Investigators are now looking into calls wrongly claiming to be from Elections Canada that redirected voters to a polling station they couldn't use</a>. It's illegal both to interfere with a person's right to vote and to impersonate Elections Canada.<br><br> A year later, here's what we do know, according to court documents and information provided in interviews:<br><br> <strong><em>With files from CBC.</em></strong><br><br> (CP)
1. Probe Started Early
Elections Canada investigator Al Mathews started looking into complaints in Guelph on May 5, 2011, three days after the election that saw reports of illicit phone calls. The winning candidate in the riding, Liberal <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/10/robocalls-by-liberals-guelph_n_1336895.html" target="_hplink">Frank Valeriote, compiled a list of almost 80 names</a> of people complaining about the calls. News of the investigation didn't break until Feb. 22, 2012. (Thinkstock)
All political parties use automated robocalls and live calls to identify voter support and contact people during a campaign. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/23/racknine-robocalls-elections-canada_n_1296383.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">The campaign of Guelph Conservative candidate Marty Burke used RackNine</a>, a company that offers voice broadcasting services, to make legitimate robocalls to campaign supporters. The person who made the fraudulent robocalls also used RackNine. (Alamy)
3. Pierre Poutine
The <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/02/28/robocalls-scandal-pierre-poutine_n_1307730.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">person who made the calls used a disposable, or burner, cellphone, registered to a "Pierre Poutine."</a> The RackNine charges were paid via PayPal using prepaid credit cards, purchased at two Shoppers Drug Mart stores in Guelph. Shoppers Drug Mart doesn't keep its security camera videos long enough to see who bought the cards more than a year ago. (Alamy)
4. IP Traced
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/04/andrew-prescott-pierre-poutine-robocalls-conservative_n_1478809.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">Elections Canada traced the IP address used to access RackNine</a> on election day and send the fraudulent message. Mathews got a court order for Rogers, the company that provided the internet service to that IP address, to provide the customer information that matches that address, on March 20, 2012. (Alamy)
5. Andrew Prescott Linked To Poutine IP
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/04/andrew-prescott-pierre-poutine-robocalls-conservative_n_1478809.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">Pierre Poutine and Burke campaign worker Andrew Prescott (pictured here with Tony Clement) accessed their RackNine accounts using the same IP address</a>. On election day, they accessed their RackNine accounts from the same IP address within four minutes of each other, Mathews says in documents filed in court.
6. But Accounts Don't Match
A court document lists the billing account numbers for the customer information provided by Rogers to Mathews. <a href="http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/story/2012/05/11/pol-robocalls-guelph-rogers-account-numbers.html" target="_hplink">Those accounts don't match</a> the number found on the Burke campaign's Rogers invoices submitted to Elections Canada, suggesting RackNine wasn't accessed through a computer in the Burke campaign office.
7. Misleading Calls Discussed?
Two Conservative staffers, accompanied by the party's lawyer, told Mathews they overheard <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/04/michael-sona-robocalls-pierre-poutine-guelph_n_1479400.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">Michael Sona (pictured here with Stephen Harper), another Burke campaign worker, talking about "making a misleading poll moving call."</a> Sona, who stepped down from a job in the office of Conservative MP Eve Adams when the story broke, has previously said he had nothing to do with the misleading calls.
8. Poutine Used Tory Database?
Arthur Hamilton, the Conservative Party's lawyer, told Mathews the list of phone numbers uploaded to RackNine by Pierre Poutine appeared to be a list of identified non-Conservative supporters, with data on it that was updated in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/05/17/robocalls-scandal-privacy-information_n_1525197.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">CIMS, the party's database</a>, days before the election. The CBC's Terry Milewski had reported a similar pattern after sifting through complaints in 31 ridings.
9. Deluge Of Complaints
<a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2012/03/29/marc-mayrand-testimony-robocalls_n_1387176.html?ref=robocalls-scandal" target="_hplink">News coverage led to 40,000 people contacting Elections Canada one way or another</a> -- whether to report a misdirecting call or by signing an online petition to express concern that it had happened -- chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand told a parliamentary committee in April. There are now specific allegations in almost 200 ridings by 800 people.