Does anyone else find this echoes of what we’ve been reading… and a little disconcerting?
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OTTAWA—Callers on behalf of the federal Conservative Party were instructed in the days before last year’s election to read scripts telling voters that Elections Canada had changed their voting locations, say telephone operators who worked for a Thunder Bay-based call centre.
These weren’t “robo-calls,” as automated pre-recorded voice messages as commonly known. They were live real-time calls made into ridings across Canada, the callers say.
A fourth remembered directing people to voting stations but did not remember passing on any message that a voting station had changed.
However, one employee was so concerned that something was amiss she says she reported it to her supervisor at the RMG site, to the RCMP office in Thunder Bay and to a toll-free Elections Canada number at the time.
Annette Desgagné, 46, said it became clear to her — after so many people complained that the “new” voting locations made no sense or were “way the hell across town” — that the live operators were, in fact, misdirecting voters.“We’re sending people to the wrong place,” Desgagné recalled telling her supervisor.
She said she has no way of knowing whether in fact the poll station locations she gave listeners were wrong addresses or phony locations. But she said the “feedback” elicited by the script was so negative, “we started getting antsy.”
She said she and a few other workers at the call centre were perplexed enough that they began telling the voters they should double-check their poll location with their local Elections Canada office, which was not part of the script.
Desgagné, alone, said some workers shortened their script — although they weren’t supposed to — and said “… I’m calling from Elections Canada …”
Desgagné’s recollection of the job was largely corroborated by two other women contacted Sunday by the Star. Neither wanted to be named. All worked at RMG throughout the 2011 campaign on Conservative Party voter identification and on get-out-the-vote calls.
The Conservative Party of Canada, in response to Star queries Sunday, did not deny its calls may have misdirected voters but portrayed these as inadvertent mistakes. It said that, in the final five days of the 2011 campaign, calls were made only to identified Conservative supporters.
Desgagné indicated it was unclear to her and her colleagues whether those being called did or didn’t support any particular party.
However, calls made earlier in the campaign, say Desgagné and three other former employees, had been structured to identify voters’ party preferences. If a person identified himself as Liberal or NDP, the agent punched a button to indicate he was not a Conservative supporter, Desgagné said; if Conservative, the call was passed to a co-worker to pitch party policy or solicit donations.
In an email sent Sunday evening, Conservative Party of Canada spokesman Fred Delorey said: “Elections Canada changed some poll locations during the election, which is their prerogative. Our job is to get votes out and wrong locations would hurt us, so to ensure our supporters knew where to go, we would ask them if they knew where their poll was. When they told us their poll was in a different location than was in our system, we would tell them that Elections Canada may have changed it, and give what we thought was the right address.
“We made around six million calls during the Election to identify our supporters and get them out to vote.”
One former RMG employee, a woman aged 24, said she thought at the time that the incorrect polling station addresses coming up on her screen were simply a “computer glitch,” so she started advising people they should check with Elections Canada to be sure.
“We’re not going to give them the wrong information on purpose,” she said.
She remembered the polling station script specifically instructed the callers to identify themselves as calling “on behalf of” the Conservative Party, “but not every call centre agent said it.”
Calls were auto-dialled by computer. Once an individual got on the line, the live agents started to read from prepared scripts. Depending on the answers, they moved on to another part of the script.
As each call ended, the computer auto-dialled the next number. The calls went to ridings across Canada; two employees said most calls went to Ontario ridings.
Desgagné said every shift had a listening supervisor who could ensure the calls were going as intended and monitor listener reactions.
Desgagné said she made notes around election time, thinking someone would follow up on her complaint. But she said the RCMP — she does not recall the officer’s name — told her there was nothing they could do. Nobody else followed up with her.
On its website, RMG advertises itself as Canada’s largest direct-contact firm in the political sector: “We work exclusively with right-of-centre campaigns to develop fundraising and voter contact strategies that target your message to the right audience, maximize your vote-getting, and win.”
The Star could not reach RMG or Thunder Bay RCMP for comment.
Tories’ explanation last December
Last December, the Conservative Party spokesman Fred Delorey, responding to a story in the Waterloo Region Record about a voter having been told to go to a wrong poll in a local riding, confirmed “the call came from a call centre that we hired for the campaign, using a line clearly labelled as belonging to the Conservative Party.”
In that case, the party said it was the result of a mistake because the voter named “was in our database twice” with the same phone number for two different riding profiles.
“The call was made by RMG, which was one of our companies hired to do calling by Kitchener Centre and the Party,” Delorey said. “Because she was listed as living in Kitchener Centre she was instructed to vote in a polling station in Kitchener Centre. We made over a million calls on Election Day. In this case there was a mistake.”
In that case, and in the cases revealed late last week in a Postmedia-Ottawa Citizen investigation, the Conservative Party insisted its “job is to get votes out, we do not engage in voter suppression.”