“Who’s calling?” “The Conservatives.”

The Conservative staffer who ran the party’s war room on why the robocalls scandal doesn’t add up

Last spring, just days before the federal election, I filed into the Conservative party war room and took my seat. Everyone who’s had this experience knows the drill: an empty desk, a forlorn looking computer, some sort of phone and five weeks of exhilaration and hell staring you in the face.

Now, we’ve had some highly publicized disagreements with Elections Canada in the past, so the campaign leadership made it clear to everyone before they stepped into the building that accountability standards were to be incredibly high. We added new language to our volunteer and employee agreements, and even had an in-house independent accountability officer available to us at all times.

Have we been accused of being aggressive and rough-and-tumble in the past? Of course. Did we go after Liberal leaders with everything we had? You bet. But did the campaign organize a widespread voter suppression exercise in the 2011 campaign? No way.

And yet, in a matter of only a few days, we’ve gotten to a place where any misleading or erroneous call by a campaign or individual anywhere in the country during 2011 federal election is being treated as the work of Conservative masterminds. But some things don’t add up.

There seem to be three sets of allegations being made:

1. specific allegations about riding-level activity—mostly in the Guelph area—in which seemingly misleading information went out to voters in a very targeted way;

2. complaints from voters in several ridings who got some sort of notification that their polling station had changed in the waning days or hours of the campaign;

3.  vague allegations of harassing phone calls from opposition campaigns (mostly Liberal campaigns in Toronto).

On the first point, the only information I have is what I have read in the media. It appears that Elections Canada is investigating, and that a campaign aide has resigned. This leads me to believe that something was definitely amiss in Guelph; if that’s true, I hope those responsible are caught. Goodness knows Elections Canada will let us know of progress, either through official channels or through Postmedia, as it is wont to do.

On the second point, things get tougher. The allegation seems to be that we organized a widespread campaign to confuse Liberal voters into going to the wrong place, and thus get them to give up on voting altogether.  The Toronto Star cites three call centre “whistleblowers” who seemed to have known on election day that they were directing people to the wrong voting stations. Of course, in the same breathless article, the three call centre employees also report that: call centre employees sometimes changed scripts on their own, without the knowledge of their superiors or the party; the callers were clearly instructed to identify themselves as representatives of the “Conservative Party of Canada;” some of their co-workers decided on their own to falsely say they were calling from Elections Canada.

To sum up, then, the allegation is that the Conservative Party used its official call centre to attempt to misdirect non-CPC voters to polling stations across town, while telling them the Conservative party is responsible for the message. As a strategy, it seems preposterous. It just doesn’t make any sense.

The third allegation is that Conservatives organized a number of “harassing” phone calls to Liberal supporters in a number of ridings, sometimes posing as “Liberal” operatives. These were supposedly intended to annoy Liberal voters, to make them angry and turn them off the otherwise seaworthy Ignatieff ticket.

The following is a list of specific allegations and complaints; these are in the words of my friends in the LPC, so I am not making them up:

  • calling people at mealtimes;
  • mimicking accents;
  • treating people rudely;
  • calling on the Sabbath;
  • calling late at night or early in the morning;
  • pronouncing Guy Gallant in an anglicized manner;
  • jamming a Cambridge fax machine with calls; and,
  • my personal favourite, calling Dr. Carolyn Bennett by the name of “Doctor Carolyn Bennett.”

Hey Canadians: notice anything?  Most of these complaints are pretty typical of those contacted by call centres. Every once in while my wife voices the same complaint to me about political calls and fundraising. And by the way, our database management system, CIMS, does not differentiate between NDP and Liberal supporters in these ridings. So the allegation that we ran off a list of “NDP supporters” and “Liberal supporters” to target is bogus.  It can’t be done with our technology.

One other helpful reminder: the Liberal party of Canada debuted a new “national” database system for the 2011 campaign, one that was finally going to compete with CIMS. Given the number of complaints about Liberal contact lists and irregularities, it’s probably time to ask the LPC about how it handled the data and parceled it out to call centres.

Oh, and those CPC people that were impersonating Liberals? Here’s a great passage from Postmedia’s February 24 story that shows the depth of the deception:

Then, on the afternoon of April 11, a phone in Volpe’s own campaign phone bank rang. Volunteer Marsha Sands described the call in an affidavit.

“I picked it up and said hello several times. No voice responded but I could hear voices in the background. I then said, ‘Hello, speak please. You’ve called me.’

“A female voice, soft and young-sounding, said, ‘Are you going to vote for Joe Volpe in the up and coming election?’ I responded, ‘Who are you? Where are you calling from?’ several times.

“The caller said, ‘The Conservatives.’ I said ‘What? Who are you?’ Response: ‘Um, we are conducting a survey.’ “

I added the emphasis above. Let me get this straight: the best quote we have to show that Conservatives were impersonating Liberal campaign workers is one in which they identify themselves as Conservatives?

And have you checked the alleged riding lists for these abuses? Niagara Falls? Haldimand-Norfolk? St. Paul’s?! Um, we won Haldimand-Norfolk by 13,000 votes and Rob Nicholson beat the Liberal candidate in Niagara Falls by 18,000. We weren’t even close in St. Paul’s.

I realize this looks like I’m excusing some of the questionable behavior I’m hearing about. I’m not. If there was wrongdoing, I agree with everything the Prime Minister has said—the facts should be given to Elections Canada and they should investigate.

I don’t dismiss the possibility of individuals acted on their own to skirt the rules. But I also know that it wasn’t just Liberal or NDP supporters who received inaccurate information on polling day. On a day when probably a combined 20 million GOTV calls go out from the campaigns, mistakes happen.

There are also instances of Conservative supporters receiving irritating or “harassing” calls, which we believe came from the opposition campaigns. And given the number of polling station location changes made by Elections Canada, which we had to tell our supporters about, it’s no wonder that mistakes were made. For instance, our best information tells us the RMG calls from Thunder Bay were made to people we thought were Conservative supporters.

We are being accused of behaving with both Machiavellian brillance and Keystone Kops ineptitude: impersonating Liberals by identifying ourselves as Conservatives and suppressing votes by calling candidates by their actual names. It’s time to step back, and rely on facts.

Oh, and how about that Adam Carroll…?

Jason Lietaer is a political strategist and communicator who wishes he was golfing. He ran the Conservative party’s war room during the 2011 campaign. Follow him on Twitter: @jasonlietaer.

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