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Foreign influence in our elections?

Elections Canada's interpretation unclear

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OTTAWA -- Canada's Elections Act specifically prohibits foreigners from interfering in our elections.

That means if you are not a Canadian citizen you cannot "in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate."

The fear is a powerful foreign entity could come in and corrupt the process or try to swing our vote to help their interests rather than our own.

How that section of the act is interpreted, however, depends on who you ask.

The national watchdog group Democracy Watch isn't happy about how Elections Canada has interpreted the provision as it relates to a U.S. Republican campaigning in Canada for Conservative MPs.

In fact, the group is so unhappy that last week it called for a public inquiry to look at the enforcement standards and practices of the commissioner of elections for the last 15 years.

"We don't know if Elections Canada is actually enforcing the laws," said Democracy Watch co-ordinator Tyler Sommers.

Democracy Watch has been critical of Elections Canada for years, often because Elections Canada is relatively secretive about complaints it receives and the investigations it does of those complaints.

But that criticism boiled over in July when Elections Canada ruled on a complaint made about the possible interference in the May 2011 election by an American Republican Matthew Parker. Parker is the president of Front Porch Strategies, a voter contact firm with strong ties to the U.S. Republican Party. It is now doing work in Canada.

After the 2011 election, the company's website boasted all 14 of the MPs that hired it to do phone calls had won their races. During the election, Parker tweeted he was knocking on doors for Rick Dykstra, the Tory MP from St. Catharines, Ont. He was also photographed working in the office of cabinet minister Julian Fantino in Vaughan, just north of Toronto.

At least one concerned citizen felt Parker's presence in Canada was against the rules regarding foreigners' participation in our elections and complained to Elections Canada about it.

On July 4, the commissioner of elections ruled that in order to even investigate the complaint, Elections Canada needed proof the actions had actually affected somebody's voting behaviour. There is no such thing as attempt to induce, in Elections Canada's view.

Sommers said that is a ridiculous standard because it can never be proven whether somebody changed their vote, did vote or didn't vote specifically due to the influence of Parker or not. He said if the intention is there to try to induce someone to vote a certain way -- or to not vote at all -- that contravenes the spirit of the act.

Plus, if Elections Canada is interpreting this section of the act so narrowly, it is likely other sections are also being viewed through the same small lens, allowing people to run roughshod over our elections, he said.

It is also quite possible Elections Canada could view the issue of robocalls the same way. If it can't be proven that somebody didn't end up voting because they were falsely led to believe their polling station had closed, then no harm, no foul?

There is a case before the courts right now in which the Conservatives are arguing just that -- whether voters in nine ridings received calls telling them their polling station had changed is irrelevant because all of them still ended up voting.

In that case, however, the question is whether the results should be overturned. The standard should be held high because overturning election results should never be done lightly. If there is no proof the election result was affected, the results should likely stand.

But that doesn't mean the person or persons behind the calls didn't contravene the Elections Act.

Whether or not they were successful, their behaviour is abhorrent and against the law.

If somebody is speeding they get a ticket whether anybody got hurt or not. If you hold up a bank but don't end up getting any money, you still get charged with attempted robbery.

If somebody tries to confuse you about where to vote to keep you from voting, it is still wrong whether you ended up voting or not.

And if it is against the rules for a foreigner to try and influence how Joe or Jane Canada cast their vote, a U.S. citizen knocking on doors for candidates in Canada should be considered a breach of that rule, even if he didn't succeed in convincing a single one.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 20, 2012 A7

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