Friday, 9 March 2012

Political Wrongdoings—illegal Robo-calls

I do not really respect politicians. As far as I am concerned, they are in it for the power, the glory and the money and nothing else. They will do anything to get into office and stay in office.

Robo-call is a term for an automated phone call that uses both a computerized autodialer and a computer-delivered pre-recorded message. The implication is that a ‘robo-call’ resembles a telephone call from a robot. Robo-calls are often associated with political and telemarketing phone campaigns, but can also be used for public-service or emergency announcements.

Robo-calls were made during the 2008 North Carolina Democratic primary, targeting African-American voters in the days leading up to the primary in late April 2008, which essentially told registered voters that they were not registered. According to NPR and Facing South, these calls were made by the organization called Women's Voices Women Vote. Voters and watchdog groups complained that it was a turnout-suppression effort to prevent certain people from voting and subsequently state Attorney General, Roy Cooper ordered them to stop making the calls. The group stopped the calls and no further legal action was taken.

Consider for instance what has occurred in Canada with respect to Robo-call messages sent to citizens to trick them into voting in the wrong polling stations.

Elections Canada and the RCMP are currently investigating a large number of claims by citizens who have said that Robo-calls (telephone calls) were used during the 2011 Federal Election in an attempt to dissuade voters from casting their ballot.

This was done by automated and live callers claiming that they were calling from Elections Canada and sending the people they called to the wrong polling stations. Elections Canada has traced those calls to an automated calling service called RackNine, a firm that multiple Conservative Party election campaigns have used in the past.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party of Canada as to be expected have denied any knowledge or involvement with these improper calls however a Conservative party staffer resigned soon after the scandal was reported but later came forward stating that he was not involved in those calls. If that is so, then I am forced to ask, why did he resign?

It is highly possible that the digital trail may very well end in the Conservative’s own computer system. The computer program they use is called CIMS. It is supposedly a secured program but few people really believe that suppression campaign could have been conducted without having someone having access to the information in CIMS. That program has the names of the Conservative's supporters. The last thing that those involved with the suppression would want to do is to call the Conservative’s own supporters in order to misdirect them as to where they have to go to vote. But by knowing who not to call, it would make it easier for them to call others who may be supporters of the other parties.

Here is what happened to Ken Hancock on Election Day in 2011. The voice at the other end of Ken Hancock’s telephone line sounded official enough to him. The caller was a woman who claimed to be calling from the Conservative Party of Canada telling Hancock that his voting location had been changed from the usual location — a local school not far from his Pender Island, British Columbia home to the municipality of Saanich which is on Vancouver Island. The supposed new location meant that Hancock would have to drive to the ferry dock at Otter Bay on the northwest side of Pender Island, then he would have to take a 40-minute ferry ride south to Vancouver Island, and then drive another 30 kilometres to Saanich in order to cast his ballot. Of course, his name wasn’t listed as a voter living in Saanich so he wouldn’t be able to vote in that riding. This meant that such trip to and from Saanich would be for naught. I don't know if he then went to the proper place he was to cast his vote but such an experience would be enough for him to swear off voting in that particular election.

“It was very strange,” Hancock told the Toronto Star when speaking about the female caller. “When I started asking her questions, she shut me down pretty quickly and actually hung up.” Obviously her hanging up on him is proof positive that something was definitely amiss.

Stories like Hancock’s are attracting attention as Elections Canada investigates complaints that voters received harassing phone calls and Robo-calls during the 2011 general election campaign that misled people about the polling location changes.

The alleged election fraud appears to be spreading to several locations in Ontario. Ridings with close results and alleged suspicious phone calls targeted voters and are shaping up to become potential battlegrounds in the continuing ‘Robo-call’ saga.

In six sample ridings out of the 55 that the Liberals and the NDP said had reports of suspicious or harassing calls during the campaign, most were incumbents and nearly all were Liberals, who lost by thin margins, and in many cases, they saw support drop substantially compared to the 2008 general election results.

Now we are learning of thirty-one thousand complaints were being filed with Elections Canada. All the parties know that voter’s lists they receive from Elections Canada are often incorrect. But even if they are, Elections Canada spokeswoman Diane Benson says the agency does not have phone numbers of electors and does not call to advise of changes to voting locations. She says Elections Canada mails out revised notification cards to voters when changes occur. Benson noted that 127 of 15,262 voting locations across the country — fewer than one per cent – were changed during last year’s campaign.

Outraged opposition MPs continued to hammer the Conservatives over the allegations and they repeat their calls for an independent probe into the tactics, which they say were used in at least 40 ridings nationwide. The outrage grew as court documents from the Elections Canada probe showed that a disposable cellphone behind Robo-calls to Guelph voters was registered to Pierre Poutine, of Separatist Street in Joliette, Quebec. Why would this man use a disposable phone in the first place? Didn’t he know that his calls could still be traced to him?

Dave Hudson, a librarian in the University of Guelph says he received a message on his voicemail from someone claiming to be from Elections Canada advising him that his voting location had changed to another location.

According to him, the female voice on the phone said, “This is an automated message from Elections Canada. Due to a projected increase in voter turnout, your poll location has been changed. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause.” The message finished by urging him to call a 1-800 ‘hotline’ if he had any questions. The same message in French then followed. I should point out that the number is no longer in service. That is because the election is over. In any case, I doubt that it is one of the numbers belonging to Election Canada.

Hudson says he immediately suspected that something wasn’t right as the new voting location, according to the message, was the Old Quebec Street Mall in downtown Guelph which is much farther than the legitimate location, which is Laurine Public School, which is about a three-minute walk from his home. He had also heard reports of strange calls similar to the one he received being made to other residents in his own riding.

Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro said his party had no role in the misleading calls in Guelph. “The Conservative Party of Canada does not place intentionally misleading calls to voters. We simply do not,” Del Mastro said. Yeah, sure and the earth is flat. I would prefer to believe that last statement than what a political shill has to say about his political party.

“It does make me wonder what would have happened if my circumstances were different,” said Hudson. He added, “If I was a single parent living further from the polls and operating on a tight time frame, for instance, this might quite realistically have meant the difference between voting and not voting, especially if I were heading to the polls for the first time. It’s creepy because electoral processes don’t work if these sorts of differences in information access exist.”

Despite the large number of complaints, it appears that the most of the suppression Robo-calls were made in the area of Guelph. That being as it is, is it possible that the culprit or culprits were working on behalf of the Conservative candidate in Guelph who may not have even known that this activity was going on? And if not, then why were most of the suppression robo-calls made in that candidate's riding?

In the Ontario riding of Nipissing/Timiskaming, for example, the Liberal incumbent Anthony Rota was unseated by Conservative candidate Jay Aspin by just 18 votes. It must have seemed strange to him when he later learned of calls, allegedly from Elections Canada, telling voters their polling locations had changed.

“We were the closest riding in the country but it’s not about Nipissing/ Timiskaming, it’s about the electoral system,” Rota said. “What worries me is that this group, whoever they are, if they get away with it this time, then the next election they’ll try it again.” If that is so, Canada is no better than a Third World banana republic where election fraud is commonplace.

In Etobicoke Centre, former Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj who lost to Conservative candidate Ted Opitz by 26 votes has asked the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to overturn the result and declare a by-election in the riding. Wrzesnewskyj has alleged that there were mistakes by Elections Canada officials and “irregularities, fraud or corrupt or illegal practices” at polling stations in Etobicoke Centre on May 2nd. There are also reports of misleading phone calls made to voters in the riding. The Conservatives are naturally disputing the allegations. The case nevertheless will be heard in April 2012 with a decision expected the following month. If Wrzesnewskyj can present evidence that there were many Robo-calls in his riding, he has a good chance of having a by-election ordered by the court.

Former NDP MP Jim Maloway, who was the incumbent in the Manitoba riding of Elmwood/Transcona going into the last federal election, says Robo-calls and harassing calls contributed to his loss by just 300 votes to Conservative Lawrence Toet.

"Absolutely it made a difference,” said Maloway, now a member of the Manitoba legislature for Elmwood. “The Robo-calls were designed to get people to go on a wild goose chase and discourage them from going to the polls. I think that it would have an effect at least in some people’s minds causing them to drop into the non-voter category. I’ve had people tell me that.”

While many complaints centre on the riding of Guelph, currently held by Liberal MP Frank Valeriote, the Toronto Star has heard from people across the country that they received either suspicious robo-calls or harassing calls from people urging them to vote for a particular candidate or party.

Linda Hearst and her husband, Ken Ferance who live in Calvin, Ontario have said that they also received a strange call on Election Day. Hearst says shortly after they voted, they received a call directing them to vote in the town of Mattawa, about 20 kilometres east. They had the advantage in knowing that the call was bogus because they were able to vote in Calvin.

Both Hearst and her husband worked on Liberal candidate Anthony Rota’s campaign and are concerned the calls may have skewed the vote in their riding (Nipissing-Timiskaming). Rota lost to Conservative Jay Aspin by 18 votes. “It doesn’t seem so funny now, especially since Anthony lost by only 18 votes,” Hearst told the Toronto Star in an email.

What I find rather interesting is that whoever the caller was, that person knew in advance that Hearst and her husband were not going to vote for the Conservatives because whoever placed their names on the robo-call list knew that information. Obviously, their names wouldn’t be on the robo-call list if the people compiling those list of names believed the Hearst and her husband were Conservatives. For example, if the people making the calls were Conservatives and they didn’t know who the recipients of the call were going to vote for, they would risk losing potential Conservative votes.

During the spring of 2011, a North Bay environmental activist received a phone call asking if she intended to vote for the Conservative Party. She said to the caller that she didn’t to vote for that Party. Later in about a week prior to the election, she received another phone call telling her that the place where she was to cast her vote was changed.

These two aforementioned cases alone convinces me that the robo-calls are being promoted by the Conservatives to the recipients they believe are not Conservatives. This raises an interesting question. How would they know who is a Conservative and who is not?

Canada already has a problem with voter commitment, fuelled by an overriding belief among many Canadians that their votes don’t really count, that all politicians are the same and that all politicians play dirty. They see broken promises, juvenile name-calling in the House of Commons and hyper partisanship trumping reasoned debate so they hit the remote button in their lives that will lead them to more interesting vistas.

Three things have to happen, and happen quickly, before all voting Canadians must gird themselves for an even more disengaged electorate and a voter turnout in 2015 that could convulse the nation.

Canadians who are qualified to vote are by law required to vote. Their votes do count. When the Conservatives were found to have violated Elections Canada spending rules in the so-called ‘in-and-out’ case, Canadians not only yawned, they couldn’t understand the accounting skullduggery. When the Conservatives were found in contempt of Parliament, their shills boldly stated that a breach of an arcane rule would make no difference to voters, and they were right. When politicians booted unfriendly people from their campaign rallies, and limited journalists to a pre-set number of questions and used supporters to boo the questions they didn’t like that was put to the candidates, the nation collectively shrugged its shoulders.

However if there was and still might be in the future a concerted effort to disenfranchise voters, this country can no longer shrug its shoulders and moan that they can’t do anything about it. If the voters are not incensed by this political chicanery, then they deserve what government they get.

The Conservatives claim they were only targeting their own voters with their Robo-calls and scripted calls. Give me a break. They point out that 127 polling locations were changed by Elections Canada in the days before the May 2nd vote. Dean Del Mastro, Stephen Harper’s parliamentary secretary said, “We have done absolutely nothing wrong.” That was a blanket denial if there ever was one that surely needs to be investigated. the next thing this man will try to convince us is that the world really is flat.

There are too many questions to be answered to limit this felonious conduct to only a riding in Guelph or a call centre in Thunder Bay or a Robo-call centre in Edmonton. To dismiss these allegations as “shenanigans,” as one Conservative did say in a conversation with The Globe and Mail, is to insult the Canadian voters. This kind of shameful political wrongdoings of vote interference has to end. In fact, it should never have even begun in the first place.

If Canadians don’t get angry and demand an independent probe and an end to the sleaze in politics, we’ll all be looking back at the 61.1 per cent voter turnout of 2011 as the golden age of Canadian voter interest because less people will be inclined to vote next time around.

The matter of this alleged voter suppression scandal appears as a dirty thread that has come to Elections Canada and the RCMP’s attention in investigating this matter is ultimately extremely important by taking a closer look at what appears to be a muddy rug of alleged Conservative wrongdoing that seems to have been woven by someone or some people representing their party.

If there is a maze of Conservative dirty tricks leading to the party’s winning election results, the best and perhaps only hope to navigate through it may rest with finding the person who is hiding behind the bogus identity of Pierre Poutine and/or more people like him or her.

The fact that this individual or individuals went to great lengths to covertly mislead voters into showing up at non-existent polling stations in the Ontario riding of Guelph is so far one of the few solid elements proving that voter suppression really exists.

The fact that he or she or they used the services of a company that handled some of the phone outreach activities of the Conservative party, is the main link between the fraudulent calls and Stephen Harper’s campaign. But without first-hand testimony, it will be virtually impossible to ascertain whether this link is circumstantial or part of a larger network set up to suppress opposition votes in the last election.

The fact that ridings the opposition narrowly lost to the Conservatives on May 2nd, 2011 are on the list is not necessarily proof that voter fraud was at play in the various ridings. It would appear ludicrous to believe that the Conservative Party would risk its reputation by indulging in this kind of skullduggery. However, although many people in Canada think of the Conservatives of being less than suitable, this doesn’t mean that the Conservatives orchestrated this kind of electoral conduct. But if it turns out that a company associated with the Conservatives was involved in the Robo-calls suppression phone calls, the Conservative party will be judged by the general public as being guilty by association with respect to the acts of subverting the democratic rights of the citizens to a fair and honest election.

But considering the current high volume of complaints, it is hard to understand that they would not have picked up on the covert activity especially if it originated from sources that were friendly to them.

What is of considerable concern to everyone is that over the previous weeks, the information that some call centre employees took shortcuts with the message that they were contracted to deliver by the Conservatives has also surfaced. Rather than introduce themselves as party callers, they sometimes misrepresented themselves as Elections Canada workers. That by itself is evidence of political wrongdoing.
Canadians may never know all that they should about what took place in the muddy trenches of the last federal campaign. But if they ever get the beginning of a definitive answer, it will come from Elections Canada or the RCMP or even the media, and certainly not from the warring parties in the Commons.

If the high route is too high to be climbed, maybe it is best to appeal to the more base partisan instincts at play. The old adage holds true and my message is directed to all political parties. “If you play in the mud, you and your political party will be seen by the voters as being dirty when you emerge from the mud.” It seems to me that half of our politicians wouldn’t get elected if they didn’t oppose political wrongdoing and the other half wouldn’t get elected if they hadn’t supported political wrongdoings.

The Conservatives appear to have gotten themselves back into the public eye again and in doing so; their alleged shenanigans have irritated the public eye. No amount of eyewash will put the public at ease until the authorities get to the bottom of this saga. When that happens, the public eye will be opened wide and see who tricked so many voters into ridings they couldn’t vote in.

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