Summary Investigation Report on Robocalls

1. Complaints

14. The Commissioner received elector complaints of nuisance calls and calls providing incorrect poll locations in three ways: directly, through Elections Canada, and through the third parties to whom they were originally addressed (such as members of Parliament). A small number of complaints were received during the election campaign or immediately thereafter. The bulk of complaints, however, were filed on and after February 23, 2012, when the media began reporting on the Guelph investigation. Complaints continued to flow in over a considerable period of time, well into 2013.

15. The volume of complaints and of general communications about inappropriate calling of electors was unprecedented, and each contact required careful review. For ease of reference, this report distinguishes between complaints and general communications, as well as between the complaints arising in Guelph and elsewhere.

1.1 Election Period Complaints

16. During the election period, a small number of electors submitted complaints to the Commissioner concerning nuisance calls. These varied in type, from complaints of simply being called at all, to complaints of rudeness, repetitive calling, late calling, and calls in which the elector doubted the truth of the caller's claim to represent a particular party.

17. As well, between April 29 and May 2, 2011 (election day), a small number of electors complained to their returning officers of receiving phone calls directing them to an incorrect poll location. Returning officers from 11 electoral districts reported some of these calls to Field Readiness and Event Management at Elections Canada. According to the returning officers, the reported calls claimed to be made on behalf of Conservative Party campaigns, or provided calling numbers that, when called, led to Conservative Party voice mailboxes.

18. On May 6, 2011, Field Readiness and Event Management asked returning officers for each of the 308 electoral districts to report any information they had concerning electors who had been directed to an incorrect poll location. Their responses identified 49 complaints from approximately 40 electoral districts, thinly spread across Canada. Notably, several returning officers – including in Guelph – reported "calls" or "many calls" from electors complaining of incorrect poll location calls, without being able to provide an actual number of electors who complained. Returning officers identified few complainants by name.

1.2 Investigation of the Guelph Complaints

19. The information that follows is already publicly known and is summarized here to provide context for the report. It is not intended to prejudge the outcome of the Guelph prosecution.

20. On May 2, 2011, and in the days following election day, electors in Guelph reported receiving automated calls advising them that, due to a higher than anticipated voter turnout, their poll location had been changed to a downtown mall. The Commissioner began investigating these reports in May 2011. While the number of known Guelph complainants grew as the investigation was progressing, that number was fewer than 100 until the events of February 23, 2012, described below.

21. With the allegations in Guelph, which have not yet been proven in court, the common element to almost all complaints was that of a recorded bilingual call purporting to be from Elections Canada, advising individual electors that their poll had moved. In many cases, the electors noted the same calling number.

22. A single individual has been charged with an offence under paragraph 281(g) of the Act, and the matter was pending before the court at the time this report was completed. The broader investigation, which is the subject of the present report, did not reinvestigate these calls.

1.3 Post-Election Complaints (February 23, 2012 and Onward)

23. The Chief Electoral Officer's March 2013 report, Preventing Deceptive Communications with Electors, describes the extensive media coverage of the Guelph investigation. That coverage began on February 23, 2012, and was based on disclosure of court documents relating to the investigation, namely Information to Obtain (ITO) documents. The articles were repeated and expanded at a significant rate.Footnote 4 As this was happening, the number of communications received by the Commissioner rose exponentially in apparent response.

24. Figure 1 shows the correlation between the salience of the issue in the print media in 2012 and the number of complainants making complaints to the Commissioner.

Figure 1

Media Coverage and Number of Complainants
Time Period Number of Print Media Articles Number of Complainants
January 1 to February 22, 2012 1 14
February 23 to March 31, 2012 2,360 1,273
April 1 to December 31, 2012 1,236 216

25. The Commissioner received over 40,000 general communications and complaints about "robocalls."Footnote 5 Most were from people who said they had not actually received an inappropriate call, but wished to express their concern that these kinds of calls had taken place. In all, 39,350 were received via an online form sponsored by an organization called Leadnow. Electors were encouraged by Leadnow to complete the form (which had a prefilled message that could be revised) and send it to a number of intended recipients, including the Commissioner. The vast majority of those 39,350 communications seemed to simply reproduce the form's original wording.

26. Investigators examined each of the more than 40,000 communications to separate actual complaints from general communications. Ultimately, 96% fell into the latter category, where Canadians expressed their profound dissatisfaction with inappropriate calls without providing any specific information about the commission of a possible offence. In the context of the investigation into potential breaches of the Act, no further action could be taken respecting these general communications because they did not disclose any possible offence. For that reason, little more will be said about them in this report.

27. For the purpose of the investigation, a complaint was defined as information about an allegation of an elector having actually received a call, pertaining to the 41st general election, that could constitute a breach of the Act. Complaints were categorized as one of two types: reports of nuisance calls, or reports of calls providing electors with incorrect poll locations. Through this process, for example, investigators determined that 158 of the 39,350 communications originating with Leadnow could be classified as complaints.

28. In total, across the election and post-election periods, 1,726 complainants representing 261 electoral districts, including Guelph, filed a total of 2,448 complaints. Of these complaints, 1,207 related to calls allegedly providing electors with incorrect poll locations and 1,241 related to alleged nuisance calls. In most cases, the complaints referred to a call that a complainant had received at least nine months earlier. It is therefore not surprising that relatively few complainants could be specific about the time or date they received the call, or about its content.

29. With the exception of Guelph, complainants were thinly scattered geographically.
Figure 2 shows that in 74% of electoral districts (i.e. 228 of 308 electoral districts) there were 5 complainants or fewer, and in 89% of electoral districts (i.e. 275 of 308) there were 10 complainants or fewer. The concentration of complainants in any single electoral district was substantially lower, by a very wide margin, than in Guelph. At 379 complainants, Guelph was the only electoral district with more than 34 complainants.

Figure 2

Footnote 4 The February 23, 2012, article appeared in a number of newspapers under the headline "Elections Canada investigating robocalls that misled voters." The story began with the statement that Elections Canada had traced the misleading poll call in Guelph to an Edmonton voice broadcaster that worked for the Conservative Party. The story referred to Guelph being one of 18 ridings where voters were targeted by harassing or deceptive messages to Liberal supporters. Most of the February 23 article described the Guelph investigation, based on ITO information and media interviews of individuals named in the ITO.

Footnote 5 The use of robocalls as a form of political communication is not in itself illegal, contrary to what many seem to believe. See paragraph 44 below for additional information about the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission rules concerning automated calls.

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