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Does anything-you-can-get-away-with mentality foster Tory cheaters?

It could take many months to get to the bottom of the case of alleged voter suppression during the last election. The larger question, though, is whether the Conservatives' hard-ball tactics are encouraging some people to cheat.

If they are, then the Tories bear a measure of responsibility, even if they weren't complicit in any unethical or illegal acts.

Postmedia reported Thursday that someone used a robo-calling service to confuse voters in the Ontario riding of Guelph on election day. The calls, claiming to be from Elections Canada, gave false information about changed polling locations.

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There is nothing wrong with using robo-calls during an election campaign. They are just another, if particularly annoying, form of telemarketing.

But it is unethical to use them to mislead voters – say, by claiming to be from one party when in fact another party is behind the call – and definitely illegal to impersonate an Elections Canada official.

Elections Canada is investigating, but the opposition parties are convinced they know who's to blame.

"Cynical old-style politics have become a trademark for the Conservatives," said New Democrat leader Nycole Turmel in a statement. She accused the party of "what looks like the most widespread and systematic voter suppression campaign in Canadian history."

Liberal MP John McCallum said at a news conference that it may be necessary to hold by-elections if the investigation proves voters were misled through "dirty tricks, possibly illegal tricks." Though the Liberals hung on to Guelph, questionable tactics involving the same person or persons might also have been used in other ridings.

"Our party has no knowledge of these calls. It's not part of our campaign," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told reporters when asked about the allegations. "Obviously, if there is anyone who has done anything wrong, we will expect that they will face the full consequences of the law."

The term voter suppression refers to the efforts of one party to convince voters who might support another party not to vote.

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It was used blatantly in the era of Jim Crow to make it virtually impossible for African Americans to vote in southern states.

Democrats today accuse Republicans of passing laws to suppress the vote of minorities, by restricting voter registration drives or requiring voters to present photo ID – which poorer voters who do not have driver's licences may lack. Republicans counter that the restrictions are necessary because Democrats engage in voter fraud.

Up here, Liberals accuse the Tories of suppressing the vote by running relentlessly negative ads that so tarnish their opponents that voters stay home in disgust.

That may just be griping. But it is certainly true the Tories push their campaign tactics to the edge of legality and sometimes beyond. They pleaded guilty last year to violating federal election laws in 2006 with their "in-and-out" scheme to fund the national campaign with money laundered through local campaign accounts.

And they may have instilled such an intensely partisan anything-you-can-get-away-with mentality among their campaign workers that one or more of them concluded it would be okay to cross the line of legality.

Political parties can't be held responsible for the actions of rogue supporters. But they can he held accountable for creating environments that produce those rogues.

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This is a mirror into which Stephen Harper and everyone who works for him should be looking.

With a report by Daniel Leblanc

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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