Election robocalls need new regulations, panel advises
Report also raises concerns about amount of information parties amassing on voters
A report for Elections Canada obtained exclusively by CBC News calls for new laws to crack down on federal political parties making misleading and fraudulent phone calls to voters during election campaigns.
The report comes on the heels of news stories that Elections Canada is recommending charges be laid in connection with automated phone calls — so-called robocalls — to voters in Guelph, Ont., on election day 2011, deliberately directing them to wrong polling stations.
The recommendation of charges to the federal Office of Public Prosecutions comes after a 21-month investigation by Elections Canada into the Guelph case alone, one of potentially 234 ridings hit by deceptive robocalls in the last federal election.
"In responding to the scandal, Parliament would do well to consider a package of reforms," says a panel of experts in a report advising Elections Canada on how to deal with the broad problem of voter deception.
"The role of Elections Canada in responding to the scandal and restoring public trust will be crucial," the report says.
Various probes related to the last federal election by government and the media have exposed abuses involving candidates trying to win their ridings by tricking opponents' supporters into changing their votes — or not voting at all.
Allegations of wrongdoing include creating confusion on election day, such as calling people and directing them to the wrong voting station.
In other cases, robocalls falsely identified as coming from a particular candidate were made late at night in a deliberate attempt to annoy voters and turn them off voting for that person.
Still other fraudulent calling campaigns have been used for everything from intimidation of certain ethnic groups of electors, to misleading voters into thinking an MP had retired and resigned his seat.
Robocalls have been traced back to foreign countries as far away as India and Malaysia.
By August of last year, Elections Canada had received more than 1,400 complaints regarding specific cases of fraudulent communications during the 2011 federal campaign.
All of which caused Canada's chief electoral officer to sound the alarm.
Marc Mayrand told a Commons committee a year ago that so much trickery is "undermining the trust that electors have in the electoral process."
Think-tank asked to study issue
At the same time, Mayrand committed to presenting Parliament with a full report on the situation by the end of this month with recommendations on how to address the problem.
As part of that process, Elections Canada enlisted the help of a widely respected think-tank, the Institute for Research on Public Policy, to gather advice from a range of experts from politics, government and academe.
The institute’s report on those expert consultations was prepared by the head of the think-tank, Graham Fox, and was obtained exclusively by CBC News.
In an interview with Evan Solomon of CBC News Network's Power & Politics, Fox said the experts were virtually unanimous on two major issues.
"The events we know as the robocalls scandal really do have to lead to changes in how we regulate political parties communicating with electors during elections," Fox said.
"But an equally strong message — and the one that may be surprising — is that even legitimate ways political parties communicate with electors … require more monitoring, and more regulation."
Unfortunately, Fox adds, "the system now is just not equipped to deal with that."
Parties holding voters' personal information
Fox says the experts also voiced major concerns about the amount of detailed personal information political parties are amassing on individual voters, and an almost complete lack of restrictions on how that data is used and stored.
"Political parties know a whole lot more about us today than they did even five years ago, and they store a lot of that personal information," Fox said.
"None of that is really regulated."
Fox says it is clear Parliament needs to give Elections Canada both tougher laws against fraudulent communications with voters, and much stronger powers of enforcement.
After all, almost two years after the last federal election spawned the robocalls scandal and other allegations of electoral fraud, not a single person has been disciplined by Elections Canada, much less charged with any criminal offence.