Elections Canada email trail points to growing suspicions over voter suppression “mischief” during 2011 election
The emails, released under the Access to Information Act, show that voters in ridings across Canada believed they had been misled by Conservative callers.
They also cast doubt on the theory, advanced by some Conservatives, that reports of so-called “poll-moving calls” were invented by voters who flooded Elections Canada with nearly 1400 complaints after news of the robocalls scandal first broke in February.
The message from Elections Canada staff trace a timeline that began with the first reports of the calls on April 29, three days before the vote, when the agency began to field inquiries from concerned voters.
At 8:16 p.m., Sylvie Jacmain, the director of field programs and services, sent an email to agency lawyer Ageliki Apostolakos, reporting problems in the ridings of Saint Boniface, Manitoba, and Kitchener-Conestoga, Ontario.
“In the course of the last half hour, it has come to my attention (in two ridings) that is seems representatives of Mr. Harper’s campaign communicated with voters to inform them that their polling station had changed, and the directions offered to one would lead her more than an hour and a half from her real voting place, which is found a few minutes from her home,” she wrote in French.
Half an hour later, procedures officer Sylvain Lortie wrote to Jacmain to say that the Conservative campaign in Saint Boniface “has communicated with (party) headquarters, who were doing the calls.”
Apostolakos quickly followed up with an email to the Conservative Party lawyer Arthur Hamilton.
“In the course of the last half hour, Elections Canada has heard that two representatives of the Conservative campaign office are communicating with electors in two electoral districts to inform them that their polling station has changed to another location,” Apostolakos wrote.
Hamilton responded just after midnight the following night — 27 hours later, according to time stamps on the emails — writing that because some polling locations had been changed, some Conservative candidates were contacting voters to ensure they were going to the right places.
“The calls being made by our candidates request the voter to confirm her or his polling location,” Hamilton wrote, saying he had looked into Elections Canada’s concerns.
“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.”
By Sunday afternoon, Elections Canada had received reports of the calls from 13 different ridings. Legal counsel Karen McNeil sent another email to Hamilton:
McNeil told Hamilton the poll-moving calls had been reported by voters in the ridings of Avalon (Newfoundland and Labrador); West Nova (Nova Scotia); Ajax-Pickering, Halton, Kingston and the Islands, Kitchener-Conestoga and Vaughan (Ontario); Kildonan-St. Paul, Saint Boniface and Winnipeg Centre (Manitoba); and Cardigan (Prince Edward Island).
There were also later reports of poll-moving calls in two Quebec ridings: Outremont and Lac-Saint-Louis and Prince George-Peace River in British Columbia.
Hamilton replied at 10:45 a.m. the following morning — election day — saying only that he would forward the same response he had sent Apostolakos.
As Hamilton sent the email, hundreds of voters in Guelph were heading to vote at the Quebec Street Mall, victims of an as-yet-unsolved mystery call from “Pierre Poutine.”
In spite of the two emails to Hamilton, the calls continued.
Email traffic shows the officials were becoming increasingly suspicious about the nature of the calls.
On Sunday afternoon, Elections Canada lawyer Michèle René de Cotret wrote to Jane Dunlop, manager of external relations, giving her a heads up on “some mischief purportedly done by representatives of the Conservative party calling people to tell them that the location of their polling site has been moved.”
The same day, elections officer Anita Hawdur wrote to Apostolakos: “The polling station numbers 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 VIC (voter information card.)”
Later that afternoon, Hawdur sent Apostolakos a message warning that, in one riding, officials received four calls from voters saying they had been misdirected. “This is getting pretty suspicious,” she wrote. “The workers in the returning office think these people are running a scam.”
Hawdur reported at 3:32 p.m. Sunday that “we are starting to get more calls now.”
At 5:10 p.m., Natalie Babin Dufresne emailed a number of officials lining up advertising to warn voters in Prince George-Peace River, where no polling stations had been changed, as a result of “alleged Conservative and Elections Canada calls.”
The next morning, election day, the number of calls seemed to intensify.
At 11:27 a.m, as the agency struggled with chaos at a polling station in Guelph, Hawdur sent an email to a number of colleagues: “It’s right across the country except Saskatchewan; a lot of the calls are from electoral districts in Ontario. it appears it’s getting worse. Some returning officers reported that the calls are allegedly identifying Elections Canada.”
Asked about the allegations in the emails, Conservative Party spokesman Fred DeLorey denied the party tried to mislead anyone.
“In the days leading up to and including Election Day we were only calling our identified supporters to get out our vote, and in every call we identified ourselves as calling on behalf of the Conservative Party, so any accusation that we were misleading voters doesn’t hold up to those simple facts.”
DeLorey said Elections Canada changed over 1,000 polls locations around the country.
When Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand appeared before a parliamentary committee in March, he said only 473 polls of more than 20,000 locations were changed, and only 61 moved in the last week, when it would have been too late to send out revised voter cards.
In his report on the election tabled in August 2011, Mayrand made brief mention of the “crank calls” that incorrectly advised voters of changed polling locations but there was no indication that these were a widespread or coordinated effort. Mayrand said only the Commissioner of Canada Elections was investigating.
Hamilton’s emailed response to Elections Canada is consistent with evidence in a robocalls-related court challenge given by Andrew Langhorne, an executive with the Conservative’s main phone bank company, Responsive Marketing Group.
Langhorne swore an affidavit earlier this year saying that RMG agents called identified Conservatives to ensure they had the right polling location printed on their voter identifications cards.
“If the address provided by the voter for their polling station did not match the address in front of the RMG agent, the RMG agent was directed to provide the voter with the polling station address displayed from the (get-out-the-vote) data,” Langhorne said.
But Langhorne allowed that voters and callers may have different addresses because of errors in the database the callers used, or errors in the voters list provided by Elections Canada.
In its post-election report, Elections Canada said that it had “indicated to political parties that the list (of polling stations) supplied should only be used for internal purposes and that parties should not direct electors to polling sites.”