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Robocalls Complaints: Elections Canada Has Received 31,000-Plus Reports

OTTAWA - More than 31,000 reports about robocalls during the May federal election campaign are under review by Elections Canada.

The agency says complaints have been pouring in over the last few weeks as the result of MPs and political parties calling on the public to send information.

The flood began after details were made public about an Elections Canada investigation into voters in Guelph, Ont., being told to go to polls that didn't exist.

Since then, people from dozens of ridings have reported receiving similar calls, or being telephoned at inconvenient hours or harassed by people purportedly calling on behalf of political parties. Some were automated calls, others were from live callers.

The volume of complaints to Elections Canada is so high that the agency may end up calling in extra help — including the RCMP — to examine people's concerns.

"Elections Canada is reviewing these and will take action as appropriate," the agency said in a statement.

The agency said it will also report to Parliament on the matter.

It wouldn't comment on the specifics of the complaints or the nature of the investigation.

In fact, it generally doesn't comment on the existence of an investigation at all.

But the fact it issued a statement on Friday speaks to the pressure that's been building for a sweeping examination of possible Election Act violations around the May 2 vote.

The Conservatives have acknowledged there was a problem with the campaign in Guelph. A party staffer connected to the campaign there resigned.

But on Friday, the Tories continued to suggest they are being unfairly attacked when it comes to the bulk of the calls.

"We’ve got all of the evidence on our side to indicate that we had absolutely no involvement in any of the allegations that the opposition has brought forward," said Dean Del Mastro, parliamentary secretary to the prime minister.

"We’ve been clear this is an unsubstantiated smear campaign that’s entirely lacking of evidence."

But Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae called the volume of complaints unprecedented.

"Unless the prime minister and his associates want to say there are 31,000 Canadians and more who are participating in a smear campaign, he's going to have a hard time simply dismissing these concerns about what happened in the last election," Rae said.

A spokesman for the Conservative party didn't comment directly on the Elections Canada investigation.

Fred DeLorey instead noted that the Tories were not the only ones who used calling companies during the campaign and said some of the complaints involved people saying they're calling on behalf of the Liberal party.

"Surely the onus is on the Liberals to explain these complaints from their supporters about Liberal calls," said DeLorey.

The Liberals have said they were not involved. One Liberal campaign went so far as to check with their calling company and said in a statement earlier this week that at the time suspicious calls were being received, their calling company wasn't doing any work.

Meanwhile, the NDP called on the Conservatives to come clean.

"Canadians are sick of these scandals," NDP Leader Nycole Turmel said in a statement. "Conservatives promised to clean up Ottawa scandals, instead they have just added new scandals of their own.

"Worst of all, Conservatives have tried to smear the tens of thousands of Canadians who have come forward with complaints of election suppression and harassment. Serious allegations are being made by well-meaning Canadians. Conservatives must stop their obfuscation and come clean about their role."

The volume of complaints received in recent days by the commissioner dwarfs the number of complaints received during the campaign.

A report into the conduct of the May 2 election says that during the campaign itself, the Commissioner of Canada Elections only received 1,003 complaints that required individual review.

The report, published in August 2011, said those complaints included reports of crank calls, robocalls and unsolicited calls.

"The commissioner’s office dealt with the majority of the 1,003 communications in a timely manner by verifying the complaint, providing the requested information, contacting the parties to correct the situation or educating the parties involved on the requirements of the Canada Elections Act," the report said.

But the report noted that the commissioner was investigating several complaints, including "crank calls designed to discourage voting, discourage voting for a particular party, or incorrectly advise electors of changed polling locations."

From a press release issued Friday by the Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections:

The Office of the Commissioner of Canada Elections confirms that it is investigating complaints received regarding robocalls placed at the 41st general election in 2011.

Elections Canada has received a high volume of complaints in recent days as a result of MPs and political parties calling on the public to send information to the agency. More than 31,000 contacts have been initiated with Elections Canada by Canadians. Elections Canada is reviewing these and will take action as appropriate.

The Commissioner of Canada Elections has the authority, during periods of high volume, to contract additional resources or call upon other law enforcement agencies, such as the RCMP, to lend assistance and expertise.

Like all law enforcement bodies, the Office of the Commissioner generally does not confirm or deny the existence of a complaint or referral, nor does the Commissioner disclose information on the investigations or reviews that he conducts. The Commissioner's approach to information disclosure is dictated by three important considerations having to do with the public interest:

1) The need to protect the presumption of innocence and privacy.

2) The need for the Office of the Commissioner to carry out its compliance and enforcement responsibilities in a manner that is consistent, effective, impartial and in conformity with applicable law.

3) The need to maintain public confidence in the fairness of an electoral process carried out in accordance with the Canada Elections Act.

Elections Canada will provide a report to Parliament in due course in regards to this matter.

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