Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Robocall challengers stay firm

Despite setback, voters, lobby group say they have a case

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OTTAWA -- Winnipegger Sandra McEwing wants somebody to be held accountable for the robocalls scheme that attempted to disenfranchise thousands of voters during the 2011 federal election.

She is one of eight Canadians asking the Federal Court to overturn election results in six ridings, including Elmwood-Transcona and Winnipeg South Centre. The eight say robocalls misled voters about the location of their polling stations, which means the results cannot be trusted.

"I had no idea Canadian politics was so vulnerable to such underhanded behaviour," McEwing said Wednesday at an Ottawa news conference.

Conservative MPs won all six ridings by a relatively small margin. Three of the eight electors are from Manitoba, two from Winnipeg South Centre and one from Elmwood-Transcona.

McEwing, who lives in Winnipeg South Centre, had already voted when she received a call on election day from someone alleging to be from Elections Canada. She knew the information was wrong but didn't believe it was something nefarious. "I assumed it was just a clerical error," she said.

She ensured her 18-year-old son, who hadn't voted yet, went to the correct polling location.

She believes she was gullible for not realizing immediately someone was up to no good.

"It really makes me angry that someone is trying to mislead me and to mislead my son in his first election," McEwing said.

More than 1,300 people from at least 200 ridings complained to Elections Canada about receiving similar calls.

The eight electors involved in the challenge allege they have evidence robocalls were far more widespread.

The case hit a snag after the only applicant who said she did not vote because of a robocall was disqualified.

Garry Neil, the executive director of the Council of Canadians -- which is backing the case -- said Wednesday the voter's mistake was not knowing her riding, which is Don Valley East. She thought it was Don Valley West.

She knew her polling location and the candidates in her riding, he added.

She didn't vote after being told her polling location had changed, he added.

With that riding removed from the case, six ridings remain.

An EKOS Research poll found the calls targeted Liberal and NDP voters more often and may have suppressed the non-Tory vote by one per cent in the seven original ridings.

That would equal about 6,800 votes, Neil said.

The Tories argue the group hasn't produced a single voter who didn't vote because of a robocall.

"The applicants allege that they received these calls, but admit they all voted normally," the Conservatives argue in a 157-page document filed in court this week. "The applicants plead mass disenfranchisement, but none of them (was) disenfranchised."

The Conservatives dispute the validity of the EKOS poll, saying its methodology is wrong.

The party has admitted it may have made calls to voters that improperly informed them of a polling location change but blamed that on potential mistakes in the party's voter database.

Documents recently made public show a flurry of emails between Elections Canada and Conservative officials about the robocalls. In the emails, Elections Canada asks the party to stop making calls about polling station locations.

Peggy Walsh Craig is a voter in the northern Ontario riding of Nipissing-Timiskaming, which was lost by the Liberal incumbent by just 18 votes in 2011. She said she didn't realize the call she got days before the election was fraudulent until news of the robocalls scandal broke last winter. Even if no results are overturned, she said she hopes those responsible learn a lesson.

"The people that carried out this voter suppression need to come to know the risks outweigh the benefits," she said.

Meantime, the Council of Canadians has started a hotline so voters in three federal ridings where byelections are to be held Monday -- Durham (Ont.), Calgary Centre and Victoria -- can report suspicious phone messages or live calls.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 22, 2012 A3

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