Elections Canada officials scrambled to correct apparent misinformation going to voters in the three days leading up to the May 2, 2011, federal election, newly released emails show.
Emails between officials at the agency show the first complaints came on April 29 from Kitchener-Conestoga, Ont., and Saint-Boniface, Man., two ridings where some polling stations did change locations in the lead-up to voting day.
In an email sent at 8:16 p.m. ET on April 29, 2011 — three days before voters were to cast their ballots — an official with Elections Canada said she was getting complaints that Conservative officials were communicating with voters to tell them that their polling stations had changed.
"Directions offered to one of the electors would take that person more than an hour and a half from the real location that according to her is a few minutes from her home," Sylvie Jacmain wrote in French, putting "Strange situation" in the subject line of the email.
At 8:44 p.m., about half an hour after Jacmain's email, another official replied that, according to the Conservative riding association in Saint-Boniface, the calls had come from party headquarters.
"It's resolved, the local association communicated with the headquarters who made calls to people in Saint-Boniface following a split in the polling stations. Party headquarters stopped the calls following the request of the local association," Sylvain Lortie wrote.
Within half an hour of hearing about the complaints, a lawyer for Elections Canada sent an email to a lawyer at Cassels Brock in Toronto who represented the Conservative Party. The name is blacked out in the documents released by the election agency, but party lawyer Arthur Hamilton works at Cassels Brock.
'No voter' being directed to far-away location
The reply from the party's lawyer to Elections Canada more than a day later said that polling locations had changed in "a number of electoral districts."
"As a consequence, a number of our candidates have had to confirm the proper location of polling stations to a number of supporters during their respective get out the vote efforts... There is no indication by the caller that the location may have changed, or words to that effect. And no voter is being directed to a polling location one and a half hours away from the correct polling location," the unidentified lawyer wrote on May 1 at 12:05 a.m.
Elections Canada instructs political parties not to phone voters about polling location changes. If a location changes more than a week before election day, the agency sends new voter identification cards that indicate the change. If the location changes less than a week before election day, the agency advertises the change in local media and sends workers to the old location to redirect voters.
Elections Canada has had more than 1,000 complaints from people in 234 ridings about phone calls that allegedly tried to direct voters to the wrong polling station. A spokesman for a call centre that worked for the Conservative Party said that they did make calls to ensure voters knew where they were going to vote because there had been changes to some polling stations.
By mid-afternoon on May 1, the day before the vote, Elections Canada officials were tallying how many reports they were getting: 10 ridings said they were getting complaints about calls that weekend.
Another email to Elections Canada spokespeople said the reports looked like they could be related to a call they received about "Conservative candidate '[voter identification cards]'" in Muskoka, Ontario cottage country, providing the wrong polling station.
Some voters had recorded a phone number so they could try to trace the call.
"When these numbers are called, the voice message is recorded by the same person even though the numbers are different," Anita Hawdur, the election official in charge of the voting process wrote in an email to one of Election Canada's lawyers.
In another email, Hawdur said the polling stations "given out by the Conservative Party ... are all wrong. Most of them are quite far away from the elector's home and from the initial polling place that showed on their [voter identification card]."
The complaints kept coming.
'Calls are continuing'
At 4:05 p.m. ET, another lawyer for Elections Canada sent an email to the Conservative Party's lawyer detailing the calls that had gone to voters in:
- Avalon, N.L.
- West Nova, N.S.
- Cardigan, P.E.I.
- Ontario ridings of Ajax-Pickering, Halton, Kingston and the Islands, Kitchener-Conestoga, and Vaughan.
- Manitoba ridings of Kildonan-St. Paul, Saint-Boniface and Winnipeg Centre.
"These calls are continuing and the frequency of calls seems to be increasing," Karen McNeil wrote to the Conservative Party.
She also included a list of the phone numbers that voters had reported.
An hour later, Elections Canada got their first report from British Columbia about calls allegedly redirecting voters in Prince George-Peace River.
In another email, McNeil told Hawdur that she'd tried two of the numbers.
One "sounds legitimately like the Conservative Party of Canada. The other message is more generic; it could be anyone's voicemail message... It's also not in English and French."
The party's lawyer responded the next morning, after polls in much of Canada had opened, by forwarding the same response sent the previous day.
The emails show Elections Canada officials discussed putting out a news release to warn voters about the calls.
'It is getting worse'
The first report from Guelph, Ont., the riding at the centre of allegations about misleading robocalls, came in at 10:41 a.m. on election day. Conservative officials say what happened in Guelph was an isolated case of a rogue campaign and that they are co-operating with the agency in its investigation into the riding.
"We received seven calls from [returning officers] just this morning," Hawdur wrote in an email.
Another official responded to ask whether the calls were from across the country.
"We just got a call from a [field liaison officer] in for Guelph, saying that they were being hit "badly," Natalie Babin-Dufresne wrote.
Hawdur replied that it was right across the country, except in Saskatchewan.
"It appears it is getting worse. Some [returning officers] reported that the calls are allegedly identifying Elections Canada," she wrote.
New Democrat MP Charlie Angus said he thinks Canada is dealing with the largest case of voter suppression in the country's history.
"We need to know what Elections Canada is doing to follow up on this. The latest allegations are very disturbing because now we see that it wasn't just a rogue campaign in Guelph ... that leading up to the election, Elections Canada was raising alarm bells of a voter suppression scheme all across this country," Angus said.