Robocall scandal by the numbers: up to 82 ridings allege election fraud

Published in the Vancouver Observer | February 29, 2012 | Circulation 150,000 unique monthly visitors

Parliament Hill will be the site of a heated debate during Question Period today over alleged electoral fraud. Photo by David P. Ball

* March 15 update – new ridings added, number of documented call ridings rose to 82.

The vote suppression scandal from the 2011 election – nicknamed ‘RoboGate’ or ‘RoboCon’ after misleading automated and live calls involved – deepened this week, as the number of ridings allegedly targeted ballooned to 82 today, according to a media tally on the Sixth Estate blog (57, according to the National Post‘s count).

A call centre staff in Thunder Bay admitted to making impersonating phone calls, and the 23-year old Tory staffer blamed for the calls denied involvement. Nine B.C. ridings are now on the list (Chilliwack-Fraser Canyon, Kelowna-Lake Country, Nanaimo-Alberni, Prince George-Peace River, Saanich-Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island North, Vancouver Kingsway, Vancouver Quadra, and Vancouver South).

The tightest race alleged to have been affected by fraudulent calling was northern Ontario’s Nipissing-Timiskaming, where Conservatives squeezed in with only 18 votes – it was added to the robo-call list on February 28. The top 11 “robo-call” ridings amount to a 14,813 votemargin – almost exactly 0.01 per cent of voters. Now, roughly one in five Canadian ridings have reported fraudulent calls.

The Liberal Party joined the NDP in alleging that Conservatives may have stolen dozens of ridings with illegal phone calls – both rudely impersonating opposition parties, or sending voters to wrong voting stations – and have called for a public inquiry and criminal investigation. The Conservative Party continued to state the incidents were isolated and not sanctioned by the party in any way. 

With only 11 House of Commons seats buffering their majority rule, just how close were the Conservative-won ridings in question, and are allegations of vote-stealing in any way feasible?

The Vancouver Observer crunched the numbers to bring you this list of the top 11 closest Conservative victories alleged to have been targeted by fraudulent calls – which may have discouraged or disenfranchised voters. We will add new ridings as they are added to the list – others could be even more tighter victories – in any case, opposition parties and some experts are suggesting the possibility of criminal charges, or even by-elections in the future.

1. Nipissing-Timiskaming, Ontario: 
February 28 update – The closest Conservative victory in the entire country was by a razor-thin 18 votes in this riding in Ontario’s far north. And today, it was added to the list of reported misleading phone calls. 18 people is the size of a small extended family, or a single Vancouver community mini-bus, or your immediate neighbours. Nipissing-Timiskaming (and its earlier incarnations) have, but for only a few exceptions, been solid Liberal going back to the Great Depression era – and Liberal support had been growing from a 5.2 per cent lead in 2004, to a 10.2 point lead in 2006, to 12.3 per cent in 2008. How Jay Aspin (Conservative) jumped ahead of three-term Liberal MP Anthony Rota by only 0.1 per cent last year is a question many will be asking.

“I think there should be some kind of inquiry,” Rota told Global News. “It’s important to identify what was done, who did it and to punish them to the full extent of the law as soon as possible.” 

2. Etobicoke Centre, Ontario: 
Won by a paltry 26 votes, Conservative candidate Ted Opitz knocked out the long-ruling Liberal Party which had solidly held this Toronto-region riding since 1993. This was the former riding of well-known Chretien cabinet minister Allan Rock, and losing it would have been a shocking blow to the Liberals.

3. Elmwood-Transcona, Manitoba:
300-vote win by the Tories over the NDP. The Conservatives’ Lawrence Toet kicked out the left-leaning party’s historic 87-year hold on this Winnipeg suburb (under its predecessor, the Canadian Commonwealth Federation). To say Elmwood-Transcona was a historic riding for the NDP would be a gross understatement: the former seat of long-time parliamentarian and United Church minister Bill Blaikie, this riding was also the base for famous NDP and United Church churchmen J.S. Woodsworth (forebear of former Vancouver councillor and current VO columnist Ellen Woodsworth) and Stanley Knowles.
 
4. Mississauga East-Cooksville, Ontario:
This one was sealed by 676 voters – and with thousands of robo-calls alleged, it’s conceivable that more than this number of citizens may have been discouraged from voting – or sent to the wrong place altogether. Just west of Toronto, this riding has been Liberal since 2004, and before that its parent ridings (before a redistribution) were Liberal going back to the 80s but for a single Conservative term.
 
5. Winnipeg South Centre, Manitoba:
You don’t necessarily have to be a fan of the Liberals to see the significance of losing this traditionally Liberal riding. Former foreign affairs minister (and now the local university’s chancellor) Lloyd Axworthy held this seat for years, which his party has ruled since 1988. Who is Conservative MP Joyce Bateman? Hitherto unknown, the candidate knocked the incumbents out by722 votes – under two percent of the vote.

6. Don Valley East, Ontario:
February 29 update: With slightly more than a two-per cent win here, Conservative Joe Daniel racked up 870 votes over Liberals’ three-term incumbent Yasmin Ratansi. But for two terms (1984-93), Liberals held this riding since 1980.

7. London North Centre, Ontario:
Conservative Susan Truppe’s 1,665-ballot win might seem like a lot of voters – could fraudulent calls have really booted out the Liberals after 44 years of rule (except for a single Conservative term in the 80s) in this south Ontario riding and its predecessors? But 1,665 amounts to only three per cent of voters – and don’t forget the huge numbers of citizens who could have been reached by automated call technology.

8. Vancouver Island North, B.C.:
* March 1 update: 1,827 ballots. The difference between Conservative incumbent (and Indian affairs minister) John Duncan and the NDP’s Ronna-Rae Leonard. Granted, Duncan is well-known in this area – he represented the right here since 1993 as Reform, Canadian Alliance and then Conservatives until the NDP grabbed it in 2006. In 2008, Duncan was accused of recording a secret NDP conference call.

9. NEW: Sault Ste-Marie, Ontario:
February 29 update: Only once since 1935 did this town choose a Conservative MP – during former international trade minister and Solicitor General James Kelleher’s 1984-88 term under prime minister Brian Mulroney. Otherwise, it’s been a back-and-forth trade from NDP to Liberal for 77 years. Somehow, the Conservative party’s Bryan Hayes won by 1,861 votes, or just shy of four per cent.
 

10. Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario:

Locals call this southern Ontario town “K-W” or occasionally “Kay-Dub.” Conservative incumbent Peter Braid grabbed it by 2,144 votes, or just over three per cent. The figures suggest that the Green Party, not the Liberals, lost the most votes from the 2008 election, but this riding was among the key swing ridings hit by fraudulent calls.
 
11. South Shore-St. Margaret’s, Nova Scotia:
Granted, this riding has long been Conservative (since 1968, but for a single Liberal term in the 90s). Seven per cent – or 2,915 voters – handed the ruling party its win, but robo-calls were reported here, and could have been a factor, as well.

(Dis)honourable mentions?

NEW: Ajax-Pickering, Ontario:
March 15 update: 3,228 votes – reported by Hill Times and the Liberal Party.

Mississauga-Streetsville, Ontario:
February 29 update: This new addition to the list of reported misleading election calls saw unknown Conservative candidate Brad Butt oust Liberal outreach co-chair Bonnie Crombie by 3,453 votes, or 6.8 per cent of the electorate. This Greater Toronto Area riding was Liberal back to 1997 (including its predecessor ridings).

Willowdale, Ontario
Liberals held this seat since 1980, and there was little to explain why two-term MP Martha Hall Findlay lost her seat to newcomer Chungsen Leung by only 1.8 per cent (3,616 votes). The Conservatives gained nine per cent of the vote since 2008 – directly bleeding the Liberals of roughly the same percentage. Suspicious?

NEW: Vancouver South, B.C.:
March 15 update: 3,900 votes – impersonating calls reported by CBC.

Ottawa–Orléans, Ontario:
Six per cent of voters (3,935 votes) was all it took to seize former Liberal Prime Minister John Turner’s former riding – considered a Liberal stronghold since 1988, and before that since 1968 in one of its predecessor ridings. The Conservatives only won in this area twice – in 1976 and 1984. Now it’s theirs.
 
Eglinton-Lawrence, Ontario:
You probably recognize this Toronto riding from its infamous natural resources minister MP: Joe “Foreign Radicals” Oliver, who smeared tar sands and Northern Gateway pipeline opponents as dangerous outsiders intent on damaging Canada’s economy and security. But did you know he won by only4,062 votes – and those bled mostly from Liberal to Conservative? Some are asking questions.
 

More tightly-fought ridings to watch:

So far, we’ve only heard reports of 38 ridings affected by robo-calls and impersonating harassment. But the numbers continue to swell as more and more Canadians report receiving them. Could other ridings be added to the list? At this point, it seems likely.
 
Watch out for these top-five other closest races won by the Conservatives last year. Although they haven’t reported phone calls, if any are added to the vote-suppression allegations in the coming weeks, they could strengthen opposition claims that we might be seeing a very different – at very least, a Conservative minority – parliament today.

1. Labrador, Newfoundland & Labrador:
Conservatives beat the Liberals here by only 79 votes (three-quarters of a per cent). Except for a single stint in the 1960s, Labrador has been non-stop Libreral since the province was created in 1949. In the last election, the Conservatives trailed by 62.3 per cent, so needless to say this riding was a puzzler. 

2. Yukon:
This northern territory saw a surprise Conservative win by only 132 voters, or 0.8 per cent of the electorate – all it took to clinch the electoral gold rush here. The Yukon hasn’t been Conservative since the 80s – for decades, the Conservative Party has trailed in this riding, which was NDP from 1987 until the Liberals grabbed it in 2000 and held it ever since.

3. Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar, Saskatchewan:
Until 2000, this riding was NDP, but the Progressive Conservative-Reform merger nudged the conservatives ahead by only 68 votes back then. Fast-forward to 2011, and the NDP have regained some lost ground, inching to within 1.8 per cent of Conservative incumbent Kelly Block’s 538 vote lead.

4. Bramalea-Gore-Malton, Ontario:
This one was a strong show for the NDP, but they still lost by 539 ballots, in a riding the Conservatives haven’t touched since the 1980s. At less than asingle per cent of voters, it’s not that many in the world of automated calls and mass marketing.

5. Don Valley West, Ontario:
Jumping ahead by 1.1 per cent of the vote (611 ballots), Conservative candidate John Carmichael ended a 19-year Liberal honeymoon in this Toronto riding. Until his resignation in 2008, this east-end neighbourhood was the riding of John Godfrey, former minister of state for infrastructure (under prime minister Paul Martin) and one-time editor of the Financial Post.

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