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Examining the robo-call controversy

U of T political scientist discusses election irregularities

When it comes to election tactics, Professor Neil Nevitte makes a distinction between underhanded and illegal. (Bigstock photo)

There is a lot of speculation and finger pointing surrounding the current robo-call election controversy. U of T News spoke to Neil Nevitte, a professor of political science, to help sort out the details and find out what’s at stake. Nevitte is an expert in public opinion, voting, value change, and the problems associated with transitional elections.

I understand it’s not unusual for political campaigns to engage in underhanded tactics. What makes the robo-call controversy different?

Not unusual at all. Campaigns are tough.

I suppose that one issue in this case is the distinction between underhanded and illegal. My sense is that we do not yet have enough hard information to determine whether any laws have been broken. That determination has to be led by the police in conjunction with Elections Canada.

Should the government call a public inquiry?

There is a lot of speculation, which comes as no surprise at all. Picking over the entrails of an election, assigning blame, finger pointing, all of this is not so unusual.

But any investigation has to be able to go well beyond innuendo; the priority has to be the determination of the facts. Who did what? Was it illegal? If there were any deviations from the law, were they at the behest of others? Who? And so on.

If there is an inquiry, how would it help resolve this issue?

First there is the question of the legal resolution.

The bottom line here, I suppose, is whether there is any evidence of a smoking gun that points to orchestrated irregularities. I have not seen that evidence. To my mind, that is not at all clear, and it will in the first instance be for the police and the courts to decide.

But then there is the broader question of how the issue might be resolved in the court of public opinion. That is an entirely different question. Scandals have a way of reappearing in subsequent election campaigns. Voters can and do punish politicians even if politicians are held blameless by inquiries.

Recall that the Gomery inquiry exonerated Paul Martin from any role in the sponsorship scandal it was investigating. But that did not stop voters from punishing the Liberal party at the ballot box. And the Liberals paid for it dearly.

If the allegations about the robo-call controversy turn out to be true:

  • What does this mean for Canada and the electoral process?

Quite aside from the allegations of deliberately deceiving citizens to depress voter turnout -- a serious claim -- one worry is that issues of this sort feed public cynicism about the political process. Citizens need to be confident about the performance of their institutions; they have a right to expect that.

  • You’ve worked to bring fair elections to post-conflict regions around the world. What changes will Canada have to make to ensure future elections are fair?

Yes, I’ve worked on cases of election fraud for about the last 18 years in various elections around the world. Determinations about the “fairness and freeness” of elections turns out to be a fairly tricky business, particularly in deeply divided post-conflict situations.

In those settings it is routine almost for parties who lose elections to call “foul play.” But demonstrating foul play beyond “reasonable doubt,” as it were, is hard to do. One problem is that people seem to have some sort of error free, ideal election in their heads and they want to interpret any deviation from that ideal as some sort of evidence of foul play.

Often, it is not. No election in any country has ever been completely error free.

The fact is that human beings make mistakes. Not all election officials are well trained. People administering elections get sick, or don’t show up to the right polling station. These “errors” are not prima facie evidence of foul play.

Deciphering whether there are real problems entails sorting through different kinds of irregularities. Were the irregularities “random,” indicating straightforward human error? Or were they systematic?

If systematic, did the corpus of “errors” work to the benefit of one political party over the others? Did the cumulative effect of these errors have a material impact on the outcome of the election? And these issues aren’t limited to Election Day activities.

Various kinds of foul play can be set in motion months before Election Day. This is why we look at the role of the media, probe human rights violations, investigate reports of intimidation, audit voter registration lists, investigate campaign spending and finance and so on.

To be sure, Canadian elections are not entirely free from errors, but we typically do not face those kinds of problems that, sadly, are common throughout much of the world.

  • What are the anticipated consequences for the person or persons involved?

We won’t know that for some time, I expect.

  • What will likely happen to the election results of the ridings in question?

That, too, is an open question. Once the facts are established, all of this will become clearer.