Misleading robocalls went to voters ID'd as non-Tories

An investigation by CBC News has turned up voters all over Canada who say the reason they got robocalls sending them to fictitious polling stations was that they'd revealed they would not vote Conservative.

Pattern of calls points to party's voter identification database, opposition says

An investigation by CBC News has turned up voters all over Canada who say the reason they got robocalls sending them to fictitious polling stations was that they'd revealed they would not vote Conservative.

Although the Conservative Party has denied any involvement in the calls, these new details suggest that the misleading calls relied on data gathered by, and carefully guarded by, the Conservative Party.

Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand announced Thursday that he now has "over 700 Canadians from across the country" who allege "specific circumstances" of fraudulent or improper calls. CBC News examined 31 ridings where such calls have been reported and found a pattern: those receiving those calls also had previous calls from the Conservative Party to find out which way they would vote.


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Tim McCoy of the riding of Ottawa-Vanier was one of those who complained to Elections Canada. He received a bogus recorded message pretending to be from Elections Canada — but he also had two previous calls from the Conservatives.

"They did call me back from the Conservative Association and ask if they could count on my support," said McCoy, who declined to pledge his vote. He thinks that's why someone tried to mislead him.

"It looks like a hijacking of the democratic process," he added. "I would like to know who made the call pretending to be from Elections Canada and I don't really care which way the finger points. I would like to know."

Elections Canada says it never calls voters at all. However, it is only now emerging that calls impersonating Elections Canada followed previous calls by Conservative workers asking which way voters were leaning. That suggests that the "Elections Canada" calls, which are illegal, came from people with access to data gathered by the Conservative Party, which carefully controls access to it.

Asked about that, party spokesman Fred Delorey had no comment and declined an interview.

Election day calls

The pattern of legitimate so-called "Voter ID" calls, followed by bogus "Elections Canada" calls, occurs in ridings across the country.

Charles Cochrane of Saint John, N.B., made it very clear to the Conservatives that they did not have his vote. Then, on election day, he said, "The phone rang and it was a recorded message. This is Elections Canada calling, your polling station has now changed." He checked. It had not changed.

From the outset, the Conservative Party leadership has insisted it had no involvement in these calls.

"The Conservative party can say absolutely, definitively, it has no role in any of this," said Prime Minister Stephen Harper. His parliamentary secretary, Dean Del Mastro, calls claims to the contrary "baseless smears."

However, opposition leaders say the scheme could never have gone forward without callers having access to the Conservatives' proprietary database on voter intentions. Known as "CIMS," the database assigns a "smiley" face to supporters, and a "sad" face to non-Conservatives. Liberal and NDP politicians say it would make no sense to call randomly, since many of the voters misled would be Conservatives.

"Who had access to the database? Who wrote the scripts?" asked the NDP's Charlie Angus in question period Thursday. He did not receive an answer.

Lori Bruce of Fredericton thinks she has a good idea. She said the Conservatives knew she was not a supporter, and called her more than once — even identifying themselves while misdirecting her to the wrong polling station.

Voters from ridings across the country who spoke to CBC News describe receiving misleading automated calls with incorrect polling station changes after receiving Conservative Party calls. (Canadian Press)

Bruce said she received a call stating that it was "on behalf of Stephen Harper and Keith Ashfield for the Conservative party."

"At that point, he told me that my voting location had changed. I, at that point, said no, it's at the same location it always is." 

Bruce then Googled the caller's number and found out it was the Conservative campaign office. Still, she wanted to be sure.

"I called the number back," she says, "and I just got an answering machine message, saying thank you for calling the Conservative Party."

Peggy Walsh Craig of North Bay, Ont., told a similar story — but received two separate calls.

"The first one was a few weeks before the election and it simply asked me one question and that was, was I going to vote for the Conservative Party — and I indicated no."

Only later did she get an anonymous second call, she said.

'Polling stations have changed'

"That was, it was Elections Canada calling and that they — due to higher than anticipated voter turnout, the polling station had been changed."

Once again, it hadn't changed at all. The same thing happened to Astrid Dimond of Mission, B.C.

Dimond said a caller told her that, "We're just phoning to let you know that the polling stations have changed."

Dimond knew better.

"And I said, no they haven't, and I hung up on her."

Dimond added that she tracked the call back to its source. The misleading call "came from the same number that all the other calls had come from, which I found out was the Conservative Party."

CBC News came up with many voters with similar complaints, including Saj Aziz in the riding of Mississauga-Streetsville, Carmen Leveille in Victoria, Gordon Webb in Guelph, May Beland in Willowdale and Susan Lapell in the Toronto riding of St. Paul's.

Aziz said a "research company" tried to find out who he was voting for as part of an "independent poll." When he declined to commit to the Conservatives, he was told that "a supervisor" would call him back. Then, he got a call from the Conservative party, trying to win him over. When that didn't work, he finally got a call saying that his polling station had moved. However, he'd already voted in the advance poll, at the right place.

In Guelph — where the robo-call scandal began — Gordon Webb says he made it clear to the Conservatives that he would not vote for them. He, too, got a misdirection call telling him to go to a phoney polling station. At least a hundred people showed up there and some of them angrily gave up on voting, blaming Elections Canada.

As for the next step, all of these voters say they want Elections Canada to get to the bottom of it.

"There definitely should be punishment," said Lori Bruce of Fredericton. "They should be punished to the fullest extent of the law."

In North Bay, where the Liberals lost by just 18 votes, Peggy Walsh Craig said, "I care a lot about democracy and so I'm appalled that this is happening."

"It raises enough questions that it makes me wonder about the results here."

Map: Complaints in 31 ridings

Complaints of misleading phone calls directing voters to incorrect polling stations on election day last spring have arisen in at least 31 ridings across Canada. Many of them, from opposition politicians and from independent voters, involved automated calls claiming to be from Elections Canada.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.