OTTAWA -- Voters in four impending federal byelections are being warned to be on the lookout for possible scams aimed at dissuading them from casting ballots.
Opposition parties blasted the Harper government Wednesday for failing to introduce legislation to prevent the kind of electoral fraud that plagued the 2011 election, when thousands of voters complained of receiving harassing or misleading calls that directed them to wrong or non-existent polling stations.
The government's inaction means the same kind of illegal tactics could be used in coming byelections in the Manitoba ridings of Provencher and Brandon-Souris, Toronto Centre, and the Montreal riding of Bourassa, warned deputy Liberal leader Ralph Goodale.
"We all need to be alert to the risk of this happening again. I think we have to keep this on the top of people's minds," Goodale said, urging voters to record any suspicious calls and to immediately inform Elections Canada.
Goodale suggested the Tories, whom he blames for the 2011 robocall affair, are deliberately dragging their feet because they intend to use such tactics again. "All of this makes you wonder what the real motive is in keeping the law against voter suppression and electoral fraud so ineffective that people could easily do it again with little fear of ever getting caught."
With Prime Minister Steven Harper having decided to delay the resumption of Parliament until October, NDP democratic reform critic Craig Scott said it's unlikely legislation to crack down on electoral fraud can be implemented in time for the next general election in 2015 -- much less in time for the byelections, the first of which must be called by Jan. 6 at the latest.
He noted chief electoral officer Marc Mayrand has previously warned such legislation must be adopted by early 2014 if it's to be implemented in a 2015 election. "As a result, Canadians will likely go to the polls again with a weaker Elections Act that makes it much harder for the chief electoral officer to track down election dirty tricks," Scott said in a written statement.
Mayrand has proposed amending the law to give Elections Canada stronger investigative powers and impose stiffer penalties on anyone found guilty of electoral fraud. He's also called for greater regulation of the databases political parties have amassed on Canadians' voting preferences.
The government had prepared legislation, without consulting Mayrand, that was to have dealt with some of the issues raised by the robocall scandal. The bill was scheduled for introduction last April but was yanked at the last minute, reportedly after receiving a hostile reception from Tory MPs.
A spokeswoman for Pierre Poilievre, the new minister responsible for democratic reform, said the government is committed to introducing legislation "to ensure that Canadians continue to have faith in the integrity of their electoral system" but gave no indication of when.
"In due time, our government will introduce comprehensive legislative changes," said Gabrielle Renaud-Mattey.
The Conservative party has denied involvement in any orchestrated campaign to suppress non-Tory votes in 2011 and has called on any "rogue" operatives to be punished. Only a lone staffer from the Tory campaign in Guelph, Ont., Michael Sona, has been charged in the matter. Sona has denied any wrongdoing and has suggested he's been made a scapegoat by the party.
Elections Canada continues to probe complaints about robocalls in Guelph and more than 200 other ridings.
Earlier this year, Federal Court Justice Richard Mosley threw out an attempt to overturn the results in six ridings due to the misleading calls. Nevertheless, he concluded electoral fraud did occur and the Conservative party's massive central database was the most likely source of information used to target the calls.
Tories have frequently deflected accusations of Conservative dirty tricks by pointing to examples of alleged abuse on the part of opposition parties. Wednesday was no different.
Conservative party spokesman Fred DeLorey called on the Liberal party to explain why it prepared "suppression cards" to be distributed by Liberal candidates during the 2008 election.
-- The Canadian Press