Over the last decade, Canada has monitored elections around the world through Canada’s International Election Observation Project (CANADEM). Canada has been part of ensuring democratic rights and freedoms in 81 countries, deploying over 2,000 election experts across the world, including Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia and the Middle East.
Now, with the current Conservative government’s introduction of a new Electoral Law for Canada carrying the Orwellian name of the Fair Elections Act, Canadians might consider requesting outside help in saving their own democracy in 2015.
There were ominous storm clouds on the horizon for Canadian democracy even before Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre rose in the House of Commons last week to present the bill.
Last spring, in a case brought by the Council of Canadians on behalf of eight electors in seven ridings, Federal Court Judge Richard Mosley found that voter fraud happened in the 2012 federal election.
Here are portions of his ruling:
“I find that electoral fraud occurred during the 41st Federal Election. “(T)here was an orchestrated effort to suppress votes during the 2011 election campaign by a person or persons with access to the [Conservative Party’s] CIMS database.” And the fraud “struck at the integrity of the electoral process by attempting to dissuade voters from casting ballots for their preferred candidates.”
Nor did the judge stop there. “These proceedings have had partisan overtones from the outset. This was particularly evident in the submissions of the respondent MPs,” he continued. “[I]t has seemed to me that the applicants sought to achieve and hold the high ground of promoting the integrity of the electoral process while the respondent MPs engaged in trench warfare in an effort to prevent this case from coming to a hearing on its merits.
“Despite the obvious public interest in getting to the bottom of the allegations, the CPC (Conservative Party of Canada) made little effort to assist with the investigation at the outset,” Judge Mosley stated. “While it was begrudgingly conceded during oral argument that what occurred was ‘absolutely outrageous,’ the record indicates that the stance taken by the respondent MPs from the outset was to block these proceedings by any means…”
In conclusion, the judge noted that “this form of ‘voter suppression’ was, until the 41st General Election, largely unknown in this country.”
Elections Canada research shows that widespread fraud did occur. The eight applicants in the case all voted but their lawyer argued that a survey conducted by EKOS Research into live and pre-recorded robocalls uncovered election tampering not just in Guelph and the seven identified ridings, but also in as many as 200 more constituencies.
Steven Schrybman, counsel for the Council of Canadians and the eight disenfranchised voters in the seven original ridings who brought the suit forward, believes voter suppression is “cheap and easy” and the government’s so-called Fair Election Act is designed to keep it that way.
To engage in robocall voter suppression – Guelph-style – you need two things, he says. “First, $172.10 – the cost of having Rack Nine (the Conservatives’ telemarketing company) to place over 7,000 calls to non-CPC supporters misdirecting them to polling stations they could not vote at; and second, a list of people who don’t support your preferred political party…
“I can’t think of a legitimate reason to download a list of non-party supporters on the eve of an election,” Schrybman continues. “Nor did the CPC offer any explanation during the Federal Court proceedings.
“Voter suppression is cheap and easy – and Bill C-23, the Fair Election Act – will keep it that way,” he warns. “We know, through documents filed with the federal Court by the Commissioner of Elections, that in the days leading up to the 2011 election, someone downloaded from CIMS (the Conservatives’ highly sophisticated Constituency Information Management System) a list of non-CPC supporters in Guelph. The Court found that the CIMS database was the likely source for similar lists used to contact non-CPC supporters in other ridings across Canada,” Schrybman points out.
Schrybman says there are only two ways to stop voter fraud. The first is prosecution. But the other, and far more important, remedy, allows for the taking of the spoils of such illegal activity – parliamentary seats – away from those who benefitted from the fraud. As the robocalls court testimony and findings confirmed, one or more persons with access to the Conservative Party’s database and telemarketing strategy basically stole the 2011 election.
Now, with the new Fair Election Act, the Conservatives have armed themselves with the power to muzzle the chief electoral officer and opened the door wide to almost every voter suppression tactic in the book – from downloading massive databanks of non-Conservative voters’ telephone numbers to deliberately directing them to the wrong polling stations to new legislation that blocks all avenues to assist, promote and encourage election turnout, especially among young and poorer Canadians.
They no doubt believe – and why wouldn’t they? – that they have given themselves an almost foolproof fast track path to perpetual victory.
In an interview last week, the CBC’s Evan Solomon asked Chief Electoral Officer Mark Mayrand if he felt muzzled as a result of the bill’s unprecedented restrictions on the CEO’s ability to communicate to the public and advocate on behalf of more transparent election rules and especially, marginalized voters.
Replied Mayrand: “ I would say that I am not aware of any electoral bodies around the world who cannot talk about democracy.”
“You are saying this would be the most restrictive rules around any electoral officer in a democracy?” Solomon asked. Mayrand simply replied: “That I’m aware of, yes.
“I think it is something that should be worrisome,” he continued.” I don’t think it’s the model of a democracy Canadians aspire to…This is a fundamental issue for a democracy. Nobody owns turnout, but it requires a collective collaborative approach by the whole society. If turnout continues to decline at the pace it’s been declining over the past 40 years we’ll have to question the legitimacy of our government and how representative they are. And that’s why we need to be concerned about it now and start taking action.”
The robocall scandal makes plain just how fragile –and easily tampered with and corrupted – Canada’s democracy is. Add to that the current government’s blatant assault on Election Canada’s education and enforcement mechanisms and Canada may soon lose its status as a First World democracy.
“My understanding is that if one considers the 11 ridings (giving the CPC its majority) in which the margin of victory was closest, in total the number of votes was 5000,” Schrybman says.
That’s just 5,000 ballots in 11 ridings out of a total of 14,720,580 ballots in 308 ridings.
“I believe that at least two of the robocall ridings were also among the 11,” he continues. “ Given the widespread character of voter suppression activity, and the difficulty of measuring how many votes were suppressed, one must ask what role voter suppression played in the overall result of the 2011 election. Our evidence is that there were tens of thousands of such calls in the seven ridings alone.”
Once a leader in protecting democracy around the world, now, shockingly, Canada itself needs international observer teams on the ground to protect its democracy in 2015.
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.