Legislated voter suppression

By Briony Penn, October 2015

The Unfair Election Act is coming soon—very soon—to a polling station near you.

In September 2, Chief Councillor of Tseshaht First Nations Hugh Braker QC made a phone call to his local Elections Canada office in Port Alberni. He was calling on behalf of the members of his community, many of whom are elders, new voters, or those without computers. He recorded the conversation and it went like this: 

Office: Hello, Elections Canada 

HB: Hi, I am the chief councillor for the Tseshaht First Nation. Do you have any printed material on how to register to vote that I could give to my members?

Office: We have posters here in our office. You can come in and write down what it says. 

HB: No, I want to give it to the members and help them register. Can I get a poster from you for our office? 

Office: No, we are not allowed to give out posters or printed material. 

HB: I understand the election rules have changed. Can you give me something explaining that and what the steps are for a chief councillor to write a letter to help a member register, or what steps a Tseshaht member needs to take to register?

Office: No, we are very limited in what we can give out. We aren’t allowed to give out copies of that information. 

HB: How do I find out?

Office: You can come to our office and write down the information on the posters.

HB: Never mind. I’ll call an M.P.

Hugh Braker’s conclusion? Stephen Harper is trying to limit, as much as possible, the people who can register. The Elections Canada office is useless and actually an obstacle to registering.

According to journalist and filmmaker Peter Smoczynski, who has spent the last four years following stories of voter suppression, this is the new face of legalized voter suppression. Bill C-23, the so-called Fair Elections Act, by making it illegal for Elections Canada to promote voting, has, in effect, made it legal to suppress it. 

Smoczynski, whose first cut of his documentary Election Day In Canada: The Rise Of Voter Suppression will be screened for Victoria audiences on October 8, charts the path of Bill C-23 straight from  the Republican state government in Texas to Stephen Harper’s vision of a dismantled democracy. The courts in Texas ultimately deemed the Republican’s laws “legalized voter suppression” and threw them out, as did the US federal supreme court. Canadian courts could catch up with their American counterparts, but first they will need evidence. That’s where citizens like Hugh Braker—and Smoczynski’s film—come in.

Having just completed a 42-day tour from Ottawa to Whitehorse filming and educating Canadians about what voter suppression is and how it works, Smoczynski has captured the experiences of Canadians in the ridings hardest hit by robocalls (one form of voter suppression) in the 2011 election. Smoczynski is also preparing his audience for the 2015 election under the new Act by giving them questions to test the information they are receiving as Canadian voters: Have you received any information from Elections Canada about where, when or how to register? Or to vote? Do you know that your ridings have changed their boundaries? Do you know that you can’t use your Elections Canada voter ID card as identification when you go to vote? 

Smoczynski points to the potential for increasing confusion in voters since 188 electoral boundaries have been rezoned in Canada and there are 22 new ridings. “People might well be in a new riding and not know it. How do they know where to go? An elections act is a core piece of legislation for any functioning democracy yet Canada’s fails to provide basic information to Canadians about their right to vote.” 

Vancouver Island, now with seven ridings instead of six, is full of confusing new boundaries. Langford and the Highlands have been pulled into a new riding called Cowichan-Malahat-Langford. There have also been revisions to the Saanich-Gulf Islands riding—ground zero for robocalls in the 2008 election. Colwood, Sooke, Esquimalt, View Royal, Metchosin and part of Saanich have been reconfigured into Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke. If you are used to going to a particular polling station it may well have changed and Elections Canada had still not made that information available—even online— by Focus’ press time, well past the half-way mark of the campaign period. (An ad campaign is being launched soon, however.)

There’s also a problem with voter ID cards. If you show up at the polls with an Elections Canada card it will not be accepted. In 2011, 400,000 Canadians used them to confirm their address in the riding; now they will have to come with a Driver’s Licence or something similar.

Even with some positive changes—like a pilot program to improve literacy in 50 selected campuses (UVic among them)—Smoczynski describes the sum total as a “convolution of obfuscated double-talk” that does nothing to encourage the ten million Canadians who could but didn’t vote in the last election. 

Making information and elections slow, late, token and unwieldy is a favourite trick of the Republicans in the US and the former Alberta provincial Conservative government. The latter customarily left setting up the polls and information until the last minute. In the voter suppression playbook, the objective is to delay so that those who seek out information about polling stations close to election day find the lines or website jammed. This discourages would-be voters and the effect has been shown to be significant enough to influence close elections. This time, as Mr Braker’s experience shows, even if they do get through to Elections Canada, voters may not be helped. Smoczynski remarks, “It is only in the eleventh hour that Canadians really understand how effective this piece of legislation is to put off voters.”

 

THE CONSERVATIVE GOVERNMENT is also up to its old tricks with a variation on robocalls. Port Alberni Councillor Chris Alemany recently got not one but two calls—live callers this time—from the “Voter Outreach Centre.” During the first call, the caller identified the Centre as working with the Conservative Party, but the second caller didn’t note the connection. In the 2011 election, the Voter Outreach Centre was used by callers to direct voters to the wrong poll. 

The Voter Outreach Centre is part of Responsive Marketing Group Inc (RMG), which is the main offshoot of the parent iMarketing Solutions Group from Alberta. RMG is the company that was examined over its use of robocalls in the court challenge of the 2011 election results in six tightly contested ridings, brought by the Council of Canadians (Focus, December 2014). The issue arose because an employee in RMG’s Thunder Bay calling centre—Annette DesGagne—reported she and other employees were directing voters to the wrong polling stations. The court found that electoral fraud had occurred, but the judge was not convinced the fraud had affected the outcomes in the subject ridings so refused to annul the results in those districts. The court also concluded that the only database capable of providing the necessary degree of sophistication was the Conservative Party of Canada’s database SIMS. 

RMG went through a restructuring process in 2013 in which most of their call centres were offloaded. The restructuring document provides an interesting history of this group, with companies like Cabot Call Centre, Target Outreach (Nevada) and Direct Contact Strategies under its umbrella. It is now reregistered in the US and BC. RMG’s CEO Andrew Langhorne, who testified at the trial, is back running RMG and the Voter Outreach Centre. The restructuring documents describe their intellectual property as “an extensive database containing tens of millions of consumers in Canada and the US that is housed in a proprietary database. A significant portion of this data includes information (names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses), as well as transactional gift history of all donations made to clients through the Company’s campaigns over the past 20 years. This was a key asset of the Company and was integral to its operation.” 

The Conservative Party appears to be Langhorne’s main—perhaps only—political client in Canada. These days Langhorne is using live callers, not robocalls, since voters are getting savvy to the tactic. This time the live callers aren’t from call centres. Perhaps in an effort to avoid another DesGagne-type debacle, Langhorne is using isolated callers who contract to do piece-meal work from their homes— which could be anywhere in North America—and talk online through their personal computers with scripts from invisible bosses. “They operate as much in the dark as the public from whom they extract the voting information,” says Smoczynski. 

Stephen Harper now has another ace up his sleeve. The new Act stripped away any power that Elections Canada had to investigate election fraud, including “compelling testimony.” Still, Smoczynski thinks Harper’s game plan may be slipping. He notes that 46 of the 166 MPs (30 percent) in the Conservative Party have dropped out or are running as independents in this election. 

In the closing moments of his film, Smoczynski launches a national appeal to Canadians to assemble evidence of voter suppression. He challenges voters to pick up a camera—particularly on October 19—to capture voter suppression tactics in progress and contribute the footage to EDayFilm for a credit in the next iteration of his documentary film. “Everywhere, I went, this past summer, from Ottawa to Whitehorse,” says the filmmaker, “I heard the naysayers say, ‘The proof is thin.’ Not this time. This time, Canadians can make a difference by being proactive.”

 

Smoczynski’s Election Day In Canada: The Rise Of Voter Suppression (first cut version) will be screened Thursday, October 8 at the Vic Theatre, 808 Douglas Street. Admission by donation. Doors at 6:30; 7pm introductory remarks and screening; 8pm follow-up discussion. 

Briony Penn reminds readers to take their Driver’s Licence or similar ID to the polls. Advance polling is October 9-12; election day October 19.