The "robo-call" and voter-suppression scandal is rapidly threatening to become a full-blown political crisis for Stephen Harper's Conservatives, with the number of ridings where dirty tricks are alleged to have skewed races in the last federal election climbing to almost 30.
The New Democrats and Liberals on Sunday both listed 29 ridings in which they claim voters were either misled by automated calls purportedly from Elections Canada about where to cast ballots, or where live callers misrepresented themselves as working for rival parties. In some cases, voters allegedly received harassing late-night calls.
The opposition contends the growing list of ridings across the country shows several people, not just one or two bad apples, were involved in a systematic, orchestrated effort to win tight races by misleading non-Conservative voters. This is a tactic, the opposition says, that has been imported from the rough-and-tumble culture of U.S. campaigning.
Neither Elections Canada nor the RCMP could be reached for comment Sunday, so it is not clear if they have expanded a joint probe already under way into reports that automated "robo-calls" in several ridings told voters that the location of their polling stations had changed.
The newest allegations to surface are in a letter that NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Alexandre Boulerice sent to Elections Canada over the weekend, including two phone numbers they say were the source of harassing or misleading calls to NDP supporters in Thunder Bay-Superior North and Edmonton East on the evening of April 29, 2011, three days before the May 2 election.
"As we unearth additional specific evidence, we will forward it to you," the MPs wrote, listing several ridings where they are doing their own investigation of complaints from campaign workers or party backers. "We urge you, in the strongest possible terms, to ensure that the people or parties responsible for these dirty tricks are held to account and charged accordingly."
The controversy highlights the tough, bare-knuckle nature of 21st-century politics, as parties use technology to blast messages out to targeted groups of voters, leaving little to chance. The question that will grip Ottawa in the coming weeks is whether the Conservatives are guilty of no more than hardball tactics, or whether some operatives' behaviour amounted to electoral fraud.
On Friday, Liberal Leader Bob Rae wrote to House Speaker Andrew Scheer to demand an emergency debate in the House of Commons when MPs return Monday, but this seems unlikely for now, in part because the allegations do not relate to legislation.
Robocalling, while useful as a relatively inexpensive, efficient way to reach current or prospective supporters for fundraising, event planning and the like, also makes it easier for anyone inclined to use it for dirty tricks.
Brad Lavigne, national director for the federal NDP, said he views robocalling as a perfectly legitimate, cost-saving and efficient tool – depending how it is used.
"The issue here is not the technology, the issue here is the fraudulent claims, impersonating Elections Canada officials and obstructing people's ability to vote," he said.
Wherever the opposition parties' allegations lead, the growing scandal is raising other questions, such as how campaign workers in dozens of ridings had a sense that shady, possibly illegal tactics were being used, and yet those suspicions apparently flew under Elections Canada's radar.
"After the investigation is complete and after this issue has been dealt with a little bit more, I think MPs are going to ask themselves, 'does Elections Canada have all the tools that they need to investigate these kinds of allegations?' " Mr. Lavigne said. "It's certainly something that will be looked at, after this investigation is concluded."
With reports from John Ibbitson
and The Canadian Press