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Tories try to contain dirty-tricks damage to lone Ontario riding

Chris Wattie/Reuters

The Harper Conservatives are trying to contain political damage over alleged dirty electoral tricks to one Southwestern Ontario riding as opposition rivals call for by-elections in any ridings affected by misdeeds.

The message from Tories, in private conversations Monday, was that something wrong happened in the riding of Guelph in the spring, 2011 election campaign – but that was the work of local staffers and took place without the knowledge of the national Conservative machine.

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The Conservatives have been grappling with a growing list of alleged electoral misdeeds lobbed at them by the NDP and Liberals. They've been adamant that they ran clean campaigns and are now challenging opposition critics to offer proof to Canada's election watchdog.

"If the NDP has any information – and I am not certain this is the case – they should give this information to Elections Canada," Prime Minister Stephen Harper told the Commons.

Opposition parties have directed their fiercest fire at incidents in Guelph, a riding the Conservatives were trying to take from the Liberals. Voters complained of receiving automated telephone messages – "robo-calls" telling them their polling stations had moved.

The Liberal incumbent Frank Valeriote retained his seat in the ballot and even increased his margin of victory.

Conservatives acknowledge something was amiss in Guelph, even as they distance themselves from what they say was unsanctioned behaviour. "There is a serious matter in Guelph," one Tory source said.

In the communication campaign they've embarked on to counter allegations, the Tories were careful not to flatly rule out the notion there were rogue partisans engaged in dirty tricks outside Guelph.

But Conservatives who worked on the 2011 election campaign were firm in their insistence that no senior party staff were connected to irregularities anywhere in the field.

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"There were obviously some shenanigans," but only among "local campaigns," as one official involved in the 2011 campaign said.

The messaging built on last week's assertion by the Conservative party's 2011 campaign manager, Jenni Byrne, that "if anyone on a local campaign was involved, they will not play a role in a future campaign."

In the allegations across nearly 30 ridings compiled by opposition, automated or live callers misled voters about the location of polling stations. In some cases they harassed voters.

Interim NDP Nycole Turmel urged Mr. Harper to allow for an election re-run in ridings where dirty tricks are found to have taken place – a request the Prime Minister paid little heed.

"Is the Prime Minister ready to call a by-election to restore the trust of voters?" she said.

By-elections are called when seats are vacant, not when MPs are still holding them.

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Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer from 1990 to 2007, said the magnitude of allegations being raised by MPs from all parties has surprised him.

"There have always been complaints from candidates," he said. "What is new is the scope."

Elections Canada is reportedly investigating allegations of misdeeds in the Guelph riding.

Mr. Valeriote said his campaign office recorded about 80 calls from constituents who said they had been misled about the location of their polling station, and his volunteers told him those represented only about one-quarter of the total number of calls they received.

Some of the Guelph MP's supporters also received calls in advance of the election by people who claimed to be Liberal pollsters, he said. The calls came in after 10 p.m. and asked constituents if the Liberals could count on their support in the election. "They were obviously done to annoy people and alienate them from the party," Mr. Valeriote said.

Cameron Adams, who managed Guelph NDP candidate Bobbi Stewart's campaign, estimates the campaign office heard from between 10 and 12 people who had received an automated call directing them to another polling station on election day.

Mr. Adams, who is married to Ms. Stewart, said some people were told to go to a downtown mall, where parking is scarce, and others were instructed to vote at the Ramada Inn, one of the busiest stations in the city.

"Whoever did this redirecting was doing it on purpose," Mr. Adams said. He said he discussed the calls with people from Mr. Valeriote's office, who told him they would be filing a complaint with Elections Canada.

Phil Allt was among those who received a call. A former NDP candidate, who ran in the 2004 and 2006 federal elections, he had already voted at an advance poll when he got a call indicating his polling station had changed to the downtown mall.

When Guelph resident Sue Campbell returned from voting at a school near her home, she found a message on her answering machine informing her that her polling station had also been moved to the mall downtown. "I listened to the message, and I was really confused because I thought, 'I've just voted, what's happening here?'" she said.

She called her husband, John Lawson, who was running in the election for the Green Party, and filed a complaint. An investigator from Elections Canada later came to Guelph to interview her about the call, she said.

All parties unanimously adopted a motion in the Commons late Monday afternoon vowing "to provide Elections Canada and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police with any and all information they have on voter suppression and illegal phoning during the last election."

While some of her MPs have called for a public inquiry, Ms. Turmel said she was satisfied with the ongoing Elections Canada probe.

"We hear that there are more ridings being affected by this," Ms. Turmel said. "I think only Election Canada or the RCMP will be able to prove or to provide the information."

There were a variety of alleged irregularities during last year's election, from annoying phone calls to misleading tape recordings that informed voters polling stations had moved.

Parties in some cases had reason to call supporters about new polling locations.

Elections Canada confirmed on Monday that it moved 127 polling stations in the last three weeks of the election. The non-partisan agency communicated with affected voters by mail or by having staff at affected locations by directing voters to their new stations. However, Elections Canada never calls voters, as it does not have the phone numbers of Canadians in its database.

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About the Authors
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

Parliamentary reporter

Daniel Leblanc studied political science at the University of Ottawa and journalism at Carleton University. He became a full-time reporter in 1998, first at the Ottawa Citizen and then in the Ottawa bureau of The Globe and Mail. More

Parliamentary reporter

Kim Mackrael has been a reporter for The Globe and Mail since 2011. She joined the Ottawa bureau Sept. 2012. More

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