Elections Canada officials scrambled to correct apparent misinformation going to voters through robocalls in the three days leading up to the May 2, 2011, federal election, newly released emails show.
Emails between officials at the agency show the first complaints came on April 29 from Kitchener-Conestoga, Ont., and Saint-Boniface, Man., two ridings where some polling stations did change locations in the lead-up to voting day.
In an email sent at 8:16 p.m. ET on April 29, 2011 — three days before voters were to cast their ballots — an official with Elections Canada said she was getting complaints that Conservative officials were communicating with voters to tell them that their polling stations had changed.
"Directions offered to one of the electors would take that person more than an hour and a half from the real location that according to her is a few minutes from her home," Sylvie Jacmain wrote in French, putting "Strange situation" in the subject line of the email.
At 8:44 p.m., about half an hour after Jacmain's email, another official replied that, according to the Conservative riding association in Saint-Boniface, the calls had come from party headquarters.
"It's resolved, the local association communicated with the headquarters who made calls to people in Saint-Boniface following a split in the polling stations. Party headquarters stopped the calls following the request of the local association," Sylvain Lortie wrote.
Within half an hour of hearing about the complaints, a lawyer for Elections Canada sent an email to a lawyer at Cassels Brock in Toronto who represented the Conservative Party. The name is blacked out in the documents released by the election agency, but party lawyer Arthur Hamilton works at Cassels Brock.
'No voter' being directed to far-away location
The reply from the party's lawyer to Elections Canada more than a day later said that polling locations had changed in "a number of electoral districts."
"As a consequence, a number of our candidates have had to confirm the proper location of polling stations to a number of supporters during their respective get out the vote efforts... There is no indication by the caller that the location may have changed, or words to that effect. And no voter is being directed to a polling location one and a half hours away from the correct polling location," the unidentified lawyer wrote on May 1 at 12:05 a.m.
Elections Canada instructs political parties not to phone voters about polling location changes. If a location changes more than a week before election day, the agency sends new voter identification cards that indicate the change. If the location changes less than a week before election day, the agency advertises the change in local media and sends workers to the old location to redirect voters.
Elections Canada has had more than 1,000 complaints from people in 234 ridings about phone calls that allegedly tried to direct voters to the wrong polling station. A spokesman for a call centre that worked for the Conservative Party said that they did make calls to ensure voters knew where they were going to vote because there had been changes to some polling stations.
By mid-afternoon on May 1, the day before the vote, Elections Canada officials were tallying how many reports they were getting: 10 ridings said they were getting complaints about calls that weekend.
Another email to Elections Canada spokespeople said the reports looked like they could be related to a call they received about "Conservative candidate '[voter identification cards]'" in Muskoka, Ontario cottage country, providing the wrong polling station.
Some voters had recorded a phone number so they could try to trace the call.
"When these numbers are called, the voice message is recorded by the same person even though the numbers are different," Anita Hawdur, the election official in charge of the voting process wrote in an email to one of Election Canada's lawyers.
In another email, Hawdur said the polling stations "given out by the Conservative Party ... are all wrong. Most of them are quite far away from the elector's home and from the initial polling place that showed on their [voter identification card]."
The complaints kept coming.
'Calls are continuing'
At 4:05 p.m. ET, another lawyer for Elections Canada sent an email to the Conservative Party's lawyer detailing the calls that had gone to voters in:
- Avalon, N.L.
- West Nova, N.S.
- Cardigan, P.E.I.
- Ontario ridings of Ajax-Pickering, Halton, Kingston and the Islands, Kitchener-Conestoga, and Vaughan.
- Manitoba ridings of Kildonan-St. Paul, Saint-Boniface and Winnipeg Centre.
"These calls are continuing and the frequency of calls seems to be increasing," Karen McNeil wrote to the Conservative Party.
She also included a list of the phone numbers that voters had reported.
An hour later, Elections Canada got their first report from British Columbia about calls allegedly redirecting voters in Prince George-Peace River.
In another email, McNeil told Hawdur that she'd tried two of the numbers.
One "sounds legitimately like the Conservative Party of Canada. The other message is more generic; it could be anyone's voicemail message... It's also not in English and French."
The party's lawyer responded the next morning, after polls in much of Canada had opened, by forwarding the same response sent the previous day.
The emails show Elections Canada officials discussed putting out a news release to warn voters about the calls.
'It is getting worse'
The first report from Guelph, Ont., the riding at the centre of allegations about misleading robocalls, came in at 10:41 a.m. on election day. Conservative officials say what happened in Guelph was an isolated case of a rogue campaign and that they are co-operating with the agency in its investigation into the riding.
"We received seven calls from [returning officers] just this morning," Hawdur wrote in an email.
Another official responded to ask whether the calls were from across the country.
"We just got a call from a [field liaison officer] in for Guelph, saying that they were being hit "badly," Natalie Babin-Dufresne wrote.
Hawdur replied that it was right across the country, except in Saskatchewan.
"It appears it is getting worse. Some [returning officers] reported that the calls are allegedly identifying Elections Canada," she wrote.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he thinks Canada is dealing with the largest case of voter suppression in the country's history.
"We need to know what Elections Canada is doing to follow up on this. The latest allegations are very disturbing because now we see that it wasn't just a rogue campaign in Guelph ... that leading up to the election, Elections Canada was raising alarm bells of a voter suppression scheme all across this country," Angus said.
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.