Can we trust our democracy?

By Leslie Campbell, January 2015

The use of robocalls and other “voter suppression” tactics suggests we can’t.

One of my greatest joys as editor of Focus is talking to people who call to request a subscription or talk about an issue near and dear to their hearts. It’s encouraging in all sorts of ways. I am always impressed by their intelligence, their concern for our community, and of course their heartwarming support for Focus’ work.

One reader who called this past month was Dave Morgan, a retired lawyer who now runs a sheep farm on Galiano Island. He called after reading Briony Penn’s story on voter suppression techniques used in the 2008 and 2011 federal elections and the new film on the subject that’s being previewed on January 28 in Victoria (see below). Mr Morgan wanted to share his own story from the 2008 election.

He told me that he usually voted NDP. “My dad was an old CCFer,” said Mr Morgan. He wasn’t thrilled about voting Liberal, but since the NDP candidate had withdrawn from the race, it seemed necessary, in his mind, to avoid a worse fate: Conservative Gary Lunn’s re-election. He was particularly turned off by the way Lunn, as minister of natural resources in 2008, had fired the head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for shutting down a medical isotope-producing reactor due to serious safety concerns.

Shortly before the election, Mr Morgan says, he had a call—not a robocall as many have complained of—but from a “live” person urging him to vote NDP. Knowing the NDP candidate had withdrawn, he was confused, at least momentarily, and when he said something that made it obvious he knew a vote for the NDP would be wasted, the caller hung up. Mr Morgan was able to retrieve the phone number and dialed it. It was answered, he says, by “Gary Lunn’s” constituency or campaign office. “I was shocked—and then realized ‘that’s what’s going on.’” Lunn’s office was attempting to get a known NDP supporter to spoil his ballot, knowing full well such voters would more likely vote Liberal than Conservative in the absence of an NDP candidate (timing issues meant the NDP candidate’s name would be on the ballot despite his withdrawal). There is nothing to suggest that Lunn himself knew of the alleged call.

“I was absolutely enraged,” says Mr Morgan, who practiced law for 34 years in Vancouver, much of it as Harry Rankin’s partner. 

Soon after, he called others on Galiano whom he believed to be NDP supporters and therefore potential targets for such calls. Sure enough, some of them had got similar calls, he says.

Mr Morgan also called Elections Canada, and was assured they would look into it and report back. He gave them all the details including the phone number, he says. Despite subsequent calls to Elections Canada, he never did hear back.

He’s not alone. In 2011 Democracy Watch revealed that Elections Canada did not report how it investigated and ruled on 2284 election-related complaints it had received since 2004. 

Unsurprisingly, Mr Morgan’s ears have perked up every time he hears of an Elections Canada investigation. But nothing has ever come of his and many others’ complaints in the 2008 election, an election that resulted in Gary Lunn winning against Briony Penn by a slim margin—in fact less than the spoiled votes for the withdrawn NDP candidate.

Penn and Green MP Elizabeth May view the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding in 2008 as “Ground Zero” of an experiment to test out both the effectiveness of then-new voter suppression tactics and whether they could be deployed safely. As May says in the new film, whoever did it wanted to find out whether “the RCMP and Elections Canada would drop the ball and never find out who did it.” Which is exactly what happened.

The 2011 federal election gave rise to so many more complaints in so many more ridings that Elections Canada could not ignore the issue. Still, after three years only 129 of the 1700 complaints have been investigated. Mr Morgan has watched—with interest and disappointment—the investigations into robocalls which targeted non-Conservative voters in at east half a dozen swing ridings and directed them to the wrong polling stations—a classic example of voter suppression. 

Only one person has been convicted. In early December, 26-year-old Michael Sona was sentenced to 9 months in prison, becoming the first person ever to receive jail time for breaking the Canada Elections Act. Judge Gary Hearn said he was “fully satisfied” Sona was not working alone. In mid-December, the Public Prosecution Service of Canada appealed Sona’s sentence, arguing it was “demonstrably unfit and failed to reflect the gravity of the offense.” Sona is also appealing his conviction.

In a legal suit by the Council of Canadians that charged vote tampering had occurred in six ridings in the 2011 election, Judge Richard Mosley concluded that “widespread election fraud occurred” in which “there was an orchestrated effort to suppress votes during the 2011 election campaign by a person with access to the Conservative Party of Canada’s Constituency Information Management System [database].”

As a former criminal lawyer, Mr Morgan feels it’s important that all those responsible go to prison for such interferences with the democratic process. “The truth is prison doesn’t work that well on your average criminal—they think they won’t get caught. But it does work on middle class people. They really don’t want to go to jail.” He’s hopeful that Sona, the fall guy, might talk more now that he’s been put in prison, and that his sentence will deter others.

Sona has proclaimed his innocence, claiming he never had access to the Conservative party database. In a video interview he said: “I think people need to know: how big was this…was it just Guelph, was it wider than that?…we can’t go into the next election with a question mark over this thing…We need to find out who was responsible, how much was coordinated or wasn’t coordinated…”

 

Meanwhile, documentary filmmaker Peter Smoczynski is working hard to complete his revealing film Election Day in Canada: When Voter Suppression Comes Calling before the next federal election. He has filmed numerous interviews, and will be presenting some of these in Victoria on Wednesday, January 28. Focus and Open Cinema are sponsoring the event at the Victoria Event Centre which will be “simulcast” at the Mary Winspear Theatre. Each presentation will be followed by its own discussion panel. (See page 37 for more details and ticket information.)

As Canadians, we face serious issues in 2015, many that will require federal government action: What do we do with an economy that has become ever more dependent on extraction of non-conventional oil and gas and is producing growing inequities between rich and poor—even while it is becoming increasingly clear that regulations limiting the dumping of carbon into the atmosphere are urgently required?

Such turbulent times will only be made more trying if Canadians can’t trust their democratic institutions—chief among them fair elections. As Globe & Mail columnist Lawrence Martin states in Smoczynski’s film: “You cannot get a worse violation of the democratic system than that—than with interfering with peoples’ right to vote.” 

It can and does skew election results. One of the speakers on the January 28 panel is SFU Professor Anke Kessler, who with Tom Cornwall of UBC, published evidence on the effect of voter suppression on turnout. There is, they argue “a statistically significant effect of demobilization efforts: In those ridings where allegations of robocalls emerged, turnout was an estimated 2.5 percentage points lower on average.” As Penn (another panelist) noted in last month’s article, “For swing ridings, that magnitude of shift is all that’s needed to change the outcome.”

They are referring to individual ridings, but enough of them and they add up—especially in our first-past-the-post electoral system—to the potential of a party forming a majority government with only 39.6 percent of the vote. In the case of the 2011 election, less than six million Canadians voted Conservative. That party has brought in the so-called Fair Elections Act which failed to do the most important thing to prevent robocall-type fraud from occurring in the future: giving Elections Canada more power to compel testimony in its investigations.

The event on January 28 will help us to safeguard our fundamental right to vote, as well as raise funds so others across Canada can see the film. Bring your friends to either the Victoria Event Centre or Mary Winspear Theatre—or throw a party and watch online (it’s being webcast). Mr Morgan has already bought his tickets. Hope to see you at the movies!

Editor Leslie Campbell has never missed an opportunity to vote. She feels encouraged by the positive type of campaign run for Lisa Helps, as described by her campaign manager Sonia Théroux in this edition, as well as by letter-writer Larry Wartel’s comments.