Inside Politics

UPDATED - Robocalls Watch: Conservative Party linked to calls directing voters to different polling stations

Breaking as we speak (or, in this case, type): What could very well turn out to be a major  development -- or, at the very least, an intriguing new angle -- on the robocalls controversy, courtesy of the Toronto Star: 

Callers on behalf of the federal Conservative Party were instructed in the days before last year's election to read scripts telling voters that Elections Canada had changed their voting locations, say telephone operators who worked for a Thunder Bay-based call centre. 

These weren't "robo-calls," as automated pre-recorded voice messages as commonly known. They were live real-time calls made into ridings across Canada, the callers say.  

In a new twist on new growing allegations of political "dirty tricks," three former employees of RMG -- Responsive Marketing Group Inc.'s call centre in Thunder Bay -- told the Star about the scripts. 

 A fourth remembered directing people to voting stations but did not remember passing on any message that a voting station had changed. However, one employee was so concerned that something was amiss she says she reported it to her supervisor at the RMG site, to the RCMP office in Thunder Bay and to a toll-free Elections Canada number at the time.

Read the full story here

A caveat, though: Unlike the calls in Guelph -- and, allegedly, in other ridings as well -- in which the caller (or, in some cases, the recorded message) stated that it was from Elections Canada, these staffers were apparently working off a script that had them explicitly identify themselves as calling from the Conservative Party, which would seem a somewhat risky practice if the intent was to misdirect supporters of other parties to the wrong polling station. 

Not only would non-Conservative voters be sceptical of any information coming from the party, they would also be far more likely to remember the source if that information turned out to be false. 

UPDATE: That'll teach me not to reread for accuracy. Apparently, one former RMG employee told the Star that several of her colleagues did "shorten" the script to say that they were calling "from Elections Canada" although they "weren't supposed to." 

In any case, I've asked Elections Canada for the total number of polling stations that were moved in the final days of the campaign -- but not on election day itself -- which should give us a better idea of the scope of entirely legitimate GOTV calls may have been made. 

UPDATE: Courtesy of Elections Canada, here's the full list of polling stations changed over the course of the election

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: Thanks to the painstaking efforts of the fabulous Colleague Carter, we've now added the electoral districts for changed polling stations. By our count, only four correspond to ridings in which there have been reports of bogus phone calls ostensibly from Elections Canada: Guelph, Kitchener Conestoga, Parkdale High Park and Windsor Tecumseh.

Interestingly, RMG -- which is a major supplier of phone-related services to the Conservative Party, and has been credited with doing much of the data harvesting that went into the creation and maintenance of CIMS, the party's much-envied voter ID database -- also surfaced as a possible source of potentially, if inadvertently, misleading phone calls purportedly made "on behalf of the prime minister" last year, which asked whether the respondent believed it was important to "support the state of Israel" as I reported at the time here

(For the record, a Conservative spokesperson eventually confirmed that the calls were authorized by the party, but did not provide the name of the firm that conducted the outreach campaign.)  

In any case, here's the list of all Conservative candidates who reported expenses related to RMG during the last election, as compiled from candidate financial reports filed with Elections Canada.  The grand total? $1,352,038.24 from 96 95 campaigns across the country. That figure does not include work that the company did on behalf of the national campaign, as, unlike individual candidates, there is no requirement for the party to disclose the names of suppliers, but simply the total spent in each category.  

Note: For accuracy, I used the spelling/format in the original documents, which is why there is so much variance in how the firm is listed: RMG, The Responsive Marketing Group, etc. 

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