Elections Canada has quietly warned staff to be on the lookout for increasingly sophisticated tactics aimed at discouraging — or even stopping — voters from casting a ballot.
The advanced voter suppression techniques flourishing in the United States are likely to spill into other countries, employees were advised in a presentation aimed at raising awareness prior to the Oct. 19 federal election.
The digital revolution has fuelled intensive data analysis south of the border that allows political parties to zero in on people who support rival candidates and then find ways to prevent them from voting.
The development prompted Elections Canada to comb through academic papers and media reports and talk to experts and lawyers about the phenomenon of electoral malpractice.
"It's important for us to identify potential risks in order to be prepared to detect and respond to incidents that may occur, including incidents that could compromise the integrity of the election," said Elections Canada spokesman John Enright.
A copy of the May 2014 presentation, "An Introduction to Emerging Trends and Threats in Electoral Operations," was released to The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.
It was prepared just months before Conservative campaign worker Michael Sona was convicted of taking part in a scheme to misdirect voters in Guelph, Ont., to phoney poll locations during the 2011 campaign.
The research revealed that rough-and-tumble American political campaigns are the seedbeds of such behaviour — identifying 17 cases in 15 states from 2004 through 2012.
"We need look no further than the United States to find a vast overview of contemporary voter suppression and surveillance practices," the presentation notes say.
Elections Canada cites four stages of a successful voter suppression plan:
- Identify non-supporters.
- Gather information on them;
- Prevent them from going to the polls through scare tactics, misinformation or systematic challenging of registrations;
- If electors get to the polls, prevent them from voting by contesting eligibility or identification, and through intimidation.
Eleven years ago, one party took the fairly broad-brush approach of assuming students at a historically black college in Florida would not be supporters, the presentation points out. The party then systematically challenged the eligibility of voters on that list, resulting in long poll lineups and delays.
But today the same computer software that allows parties to build massive databases with detailed information about likely supporters also enables them to more precisely identify — and target — non-supporters.
Parties use voter lists, digital maps, and information from public or commercial sources to build personal profiles — each containing up to 250 pieces of data, from basic demographic information to culinary or musical tastes.
"These databases allow campaigns to send micro-targeted messages to specific audiences," the notes say.
For instance, Spanish-speaking voters in Arizona received robocalls and mailouts in 2012 advising them to vote after election day.
In Maryland, tens of thousands of Democratic voters were apparently targeted by robocalls in 2010 falsely saying their candidate had already won the election.
The U.S. has also seen the rise of "poll watchers" recruited by activist groups, the notes say. "They often harass voters in predominantly minority voting districts, create anxiety and agitate voters."
Another tactic involves handing out flyers threatening jail time or other penalties for those who vote "illegally" — a means of dissuading those who are unsure of their registration status or whether they have the correct identification.
A multi-party parliamentary system like Canada's may be especially affected by such micro-targeting, which tends to "consolidate power in the larger, more well financed political parties" at the expense of smaller ones, the Elections Canada notes say.
In addition, micro-targeting can have a "disproportionate impact" on parliamentary systems, where subtle shifts in voter behaviour of specific slivers of the electorate in key electoral districts "can indeed affect the distribution of seats in the legislature and even the composition of the government."