It’s been said many times, but it bears endless repetition – it’s a near certainty that at least one major party is going to try to steal this year’s federal election.
And with new concerns arising that this year’s election will be subject to more dirty tricks than ever before, this is an issue that deserves closer attention. So let’s take a close look at the recent history of electoral crime.
For as long as there’s been democracy there’s been behind-the-scenes election-day shenanigans, but I feel like things have been pretty next-level out-in-the-open since George W. Bush’s broad daylight theft of the 2000 American presidential election. However, the more instructive example of election theft, and one that seems to have served as a model for the Harper Conservatives, is the 2004 presidential election.
Not widely acknowledged as a rigged event, the Bush vs. Kerry match-up was won for the incumbent president with a veritable buffet of dirty tricks and the modern-day equivalent of ballot box stuffing. And the details of this massive crime were widely available at the time – they just never rose to the level of scandal that would have caught CNN’s attention. But the details are damning. From a 2005 Harper’s Magazine article:
It seemed at times that Ohio’s secretary of state [J. Kenneth Blackwell, also co-chair of Bush’s Ohio campaign] was determined to try every stunt short of levying a poll tax to suppress new voter turnout. On September 7, based on an overzealous reading of an obscure state bylaw, he ordered county boards of elections to reject all Ohio voter-registration forms not “printed on white, uncoated paper of not less than 80 lb. text weight.” Under public pressure he reversed the order three weeks later, by which time unknown numbers of Ohioans had been disenfranchised. Blackwell also attempted to limit access to provisional ballots…
Under Blackwell the state Republican Party tried to disenfranchise still more Democratic voters through a technique known as “caging.” The party sent registered letters to new voters, “then sought to challenge 35,000 individuals who refused to sign for the letters,” including “voters who were homeless, serving abroad, or simply did not want to sign for something concerning the Republican Party.”…
Ohio Democrats also were heavily thwarted through dirty tricks recalling Richard Nixon’s reign and the systematic bullying of Dixie. There were “literally thousands upon thousands” of such incidents, the Conyers report notes, cataloguing only the grossest cases. Voters were told, falsely, that their polling place had changed; the news was conveyed by phone calls, “door-hangers,” and even party workers going door to door. There were phone calls and fake “voter bulletins” instructing Democrats that they were not to cast their votes until Wednesday, November 3, the day after Election Day. Unknown “volunteers” in Cleveland showed up at the homes of Democrats, kindly offering to “deliver” completed absentee ballots to the election office. And at several polling places, election personnel or hired goons bused in to do the job “challenged” voters—black voters in particular—to produce documents confirming their eligibility to vote.
Apparently, however, throwing up all these obstacles to voting was insufficient to throw the state of Ohio to Bush, so further manipulation of the results was required:
We do know, however, that Ohio, like the nation, was the site of numerous statistical anomalies—so many that the number is itself statistically anomalous, since every single one of them took votes from Kerry. In Butler County the Democratic candidate for State Supreme Court took in 5,347 more votes than Kerry did. In Cuyahoga County ten Cleveland precincts “reported an incredibly high number of votes for third party candidates who have historically received only a handful of votes from these urban areas”—mystery votes that would mostly otherwise have gone to Kerry. In Franklin County, Bush received nearly 4,000 extra votes from one computer, and, in Miami County, just over 13,000 votes appeared in Bush’s column after all precincts had reported. In Perry County the number of Bush votes somehow exceeded the number of registered voters, leading to voter turnout rates as high as 124 percent. Youngstown, perhaps to make up the difference, reported negative 25 million votes.
In Cuyahoga County and in Franklin County—both Democratic strongholds—the arrows on the absentee ballots were not properly aligned with their respective punch holes, so that countless votes were miscast, as in West Palm Beach back in 2000. In Mercer County some 4,000 votes for president—representing nearly 7 percent of the electorate—mysteriously dropped out of the final count. The machines in heavily Democratic Lucas County kept going haywire, prompting the county’s election director to admit that prior tests of the machines had failed. One polling place in Lucas County never opened because all the machines were locked up somewhere and no one had the key. In Hamilton County many absentee voters could not cast a Democratic vote for president because county workers, in taking Ralph Nader’s name off many ballots, also happened to remove John Kerry’s name. The Washington Post reported that in Mahoning County “25 electronic machines transferred an unknown number of Kerry votes to the Bush column,” but it did not think to ask why.
Obviously, we haven’t seen anything quite on that scale in Canada under the Harper Conservatives. But the institutional links between Canada’s Conservative Party and the U.S. Republican Party are broad and deep. The stark similarities between the American and Canadian versions of voter intimidation, misinformation, legalistic rejections of voters, and so on, is clear to anybody who’s been following this issue. Robocall scandal fall-guy Michael Sona told iPolitics’ Michael Harris that Conservative Party operatives had for years regularly traveled to the U.S. to witness the Republican Party’s election methods and tactics. And it seems that the HarperCons learned a thing or two.
The robocall scandal, after all, was a play taken directly out of the Republican Party’s playbook. Telling supporters of your opposition that their polling place had changed, or voting day wasn’t until tomorrow, is a classic American tactic, and part of the shock of the scandal was that it was happening here.
The Conservatives’ electoral crimes weren’t limited to the robocall scandal, however. As has been widely reported, the party has been found guilty of breaking electoral laws in every election that they’ve won. In ways large and small, the party has tried to undermine the integrity of the process in order to gain an unfair advantage. And the reason they go to all the effort is because it works:
In the voter suppression scandal, nearly 1,400 individual Canadians reported phone calls harassing them or misinforming them of their polling station. The calls mostly targeted NDP and Liberal supporters.
Then-Liberal leader Bob Rae said the robocalls helped defeat Liberal candidates in 27 ridings, likening the calls to “stuffing a ballot box.”
Elections Canada identified 7,600 robocalls in Guelph telling voters to go to the wrong polling station.
A paper by authors from the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University,which was revised earlier this year, estimated that the illegal demobilization of the robocalls scandal reduced voter turnout by about four percent in 27 districts.
Dirty tricks like this, if they go unpunished, are remarkably effective. We have absolutely no reason to believe they won’t try this, and similar tactics, again.
In fact, work has been underway since last year to swing the election for the Cons. The so-called Fair Elections Act tilts the table in the blue team’s favour, by, for instance, making it harder for students, indigenous people, and poor folks to vote by instituting unnecessarily harsh voter ID requirements, giving incumbent candidates the power to appoint election workers and poll supervisors, and removing powers from arms-length observer agency Elections Canada, restricting their ability to speak on most topics.
Indeed, Elections Canada – whose leader openly opposed the Fair Elections Act, calling it “an affront to democracy” – quietly issued a memo to its staff to keep a sharp eye open for dirty tricks on Election Day:
The advanced voter suppression techniques flourishing in the United States are likely to spill into other countries, employees were advised in a presentation aimed at raising awareness prior to the Oct. 19 federal election.
The digital revolution has fuelled intensive data analysis south of the border that allows political parties to zero in on people who support rival candidates and then find ways to prevent them from voting…
“We need look no further than the United States to find a vast overview of contemporary voter suppression and surveillance practices,” the presentation notes say.
One major advantage we maintain over American electoral politics, at least at the federal level, is that we don’t use electronic voting machines, which allow preposterous levels of manipulation with the active participation of only a handful of people. This renders the kind of absurd numbers cited in Harper’s article on the 2004 election impossible here.
But this election is shaping up to be an unprecedentedly close contest, with perhaps dozens of ridings going right down to the wire. In tight contests like this, a shift in a thousand or even several hundred votes could be decisive. It’s in contests like these that we’re most likely to see voter interference, voter intimidation, misinformation, and who knows, maybe even tampering with ballots.
At this point, it would be surprising if we didn’t see some kind of electoral interference this October. This is a story to stay on top of! Check back in this space in the days after October 19th to read all about it. 😉