Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Foreign Election Campaign Workers?

in·duce/inˈd(y)o͞os/ Verb:

1) Succeed in persuading or influencing (someone) to do something.
2) Bring about or give rise to.


The Twitterverse has been talking about whether the open use by the Conservative Party of a US company called “Front Porch Strategies” and its employees in front line voter contact breached section 331 of the Canada Elections Act. This was first raised by Creekside, @ConBGone and then Brock University students on Twitter and I have tweeted the relevant sections of the Canada Elections Act, but it requires a longer discussion than 140 characters to get to the ambiguous heart of it.

First of all, the reported facts are that US company Front Porch Strategies assisted the Conservative Party of Canada in the 2011 Federal election. According to its website (, “Front Porch Strategies is an award winning international voter contact and constituent communications firm based out of Columbus, Ohio. Our passion is helping Republican candidates, elected officials, and conservative causes win by personally connecting them with voters and constituents.”

What caused a flurry of tweets was a photo posted of Front Porch Strategies “President Matthew Parker sitting in the campaign offices of Con MP Julian Fantino with a phone to his ear, a pencil in his hand, and a paper with the header ‘Election Day is Monday May 2nd – You Can Vote Now’ in front of him”. Also published (see: ) were a series of tweets from Front Porch Strategies talking about their active involvement in door knocking and other activities in the Fantino and other CPC candidates’ campaigns.

The question first raised by the Brock University students is, was this activity illegal?

They were specifically looking at section 331 of the Canada Elections Act:

Non-interference by Foreigners

Prohibition – inducements by non-residents

331. No person who does not reside in Canada shall, during an election period, in any way induce electors to vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate unless the person is

(a) a Canadian citizen; or

(b) a permanent resident within the meaning of subsection 2(1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act.

S.C. 2001, c. 27, s. 211.

(See: Canada Elections Act )

This section appears in Part 16 of the Act, headed “Communications”. Much of the section deals with broadcasting, polling and advertising prohibitions during elections. It has been suggested that this prohibition in s. 331 may only deal with “inducing electors” by way of broadcasting, polling or advertising, however, s. 331 does not contain any language that limits it to those means of communications. “Inducing” is not a defined term in the Act, and so has its ordinary meaning, which is to “persuade or influence someone to do something”. The section speaks in absolutes: "No person..." It is also important to note the use of the all-encompassing phrase: “in any way”, which carves out no exceptions.

That is a pretty broad definition, but it has a valid policy purpose, which is a general belief in democracies that foreign elements should not be able to influence the outcome of domestic elections. Elections are the sole preserve of effected citizens, and the sinister (or even well-meaning) hand of foreign interests should not influence who we elect to govern us. This includes advertising (ie: a US company running ads in Canada during an election to support a sympathetic party).

It may be that Elections Canada has narrowed the definition of s. 331 in some decision or policy statement, but I am not aware of it. There appear to be no prosecutions under this section, so no helpful decisions in determining what it means. In fact, Elections Canada may determine it means one thing, but again the ultimate decision about interpretation and application belongs to the courts.

I think s. 331 may be reasonably read to be limited (although artificially) to prevent foreigners (as defined in the Act) from interacting directly with Canadian voters as front line workers or content creators. It may not prohibit Canadian political parties from contracting non-Canadian 3rd party services, like election technologies, provided no “foreigners” are in direct contact with Canadian voters or control the message. It is a very fine distinction.

On the plain meaning of s. 331, it appears contrary to the Elections Act to hire or accept volunteer non-citizens to work for a candidate if their role is to “in any way induce” electors to “vote or refrain from voting or vote or refrain from voting for a particular candidate”.

The Brock University students posted the photo of US citizen and President of Front Porch Strategies apparently working the phones in the Fantino election campaign. Front Porch also tweeted that they were “knocking doors for MP Rick Dykstra”, presumably directly interacting with Canadian voters and encouraging them to vote for their candidate.

What are the penalties for violating s. 331 of the Canada Elections Act? Section 495(3) states that "Every person who willfully contravenes section 331 (inducement by foreigners) is guilty of an offence." With regard to penalty, section 500(3) says “Every person who is guilty of an offence under any of subsections 484(2), 486(2), 495(3) and 497(2) is liable on summary conviction to a fine of not more than $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term of not more than six months, or to both.”

Section 495(3) makes the penalty apply to any person who “willfully contravenes section 331”, so it probably would not be just the “foreigner”, but also the people who allowed, hired or placed the foreigner in a position to “induce” electors to vote for their candidate, including the campaign manager, candidate or any other person in authority who knew they had a prohibited person working on the campaign.

As I cautioned, I am not aware of any interpretations, precedents or prosecutions under this section, and am curious to know what if any action Elections Canada may be prepared to take. CBC House of Commons uber-reporter Kady O'Malley is currently asking Elections Canada for their view on the section. So far Elections Canada has said that there have been no prosecutions under this section.

Regardless, there are valid policy concerns involved in ensuring that Canadian elections are conducted in Canada by Canadians when it comes to directly “inducing” voters to support or reject any candidate. Elections should not be subject to the influences of a foreign satellite economy or policy, or the party that can hire the most cross-border muscle to work on their behalf.


Here's the promised update from CBC's Kady O'Malley. The answer? A resounding maybe...

"Did a pair of American political tourists run afoul of Canadian election law by campaigning for Conservative MPs in #elxn41?" - Inside Politics

Saturday, March 24, 2012

It's In The Fine Print

Toronto's Globe and Mail published a story March 23rd full of interesting Robocall nuggets in their ongoing investigation.

It included some of the nuts and bolts about the so-called Pierre Poutine activity at RackNine and how he contacted the company to set up the calling account.

One of the interesting revelations is that there was a second call that was erased but then recovered by RackNine that was "to dial Guelph, Ont., voters in the middle of the night with a fake message from the local Liberal campaign". For some reason the call was never sent to the couple thousand numbers uploaded into the system. The caller ID programmed into the call would have shown the Liberal candidate's phone number as the originating caller, and would have given a fake 1-800 number for Elections Canada.

Something I found more interesting and was left hanging in the article was the following:

According to the new filings, Matt Meier, the CEO of the Alberta firm used to make the robo-calls, also told Elections Canada that “Pierre” initially telephoned him directly on his unlisted office extension and asked for him by name when setting up his robo-calling account.

“Pierre referred to knowing someone in the Conservative Party,” Mr. Mathews said of the call Mr. Meier received at RackNine. “In Meier’s view, these facts mean someone must have given Pierre his contact information.”

Mr. Meier told Elections Canada his contract with the Conservative Party during the 2011 election campaign stipulated he would “not provide his calling service to other parties.”

I found that last paragraph the most interesting. RackNine had an exclusive contract with the Conservative Party of Canada in the 2011 election. That means that doing work for any other party or their operatives would be a breach of contract and subject to a lawsuit.

There is nothing in the article (and articles do not report everything) to explain how RackNine satisfied itself that the fictitious Pierre Poutine (who used the less laughable name Pierre Jones) was someone authorized to use RackNine's exclusively Conservative political "super weapon". Aside from “Pierre referred to knowing someone in the Conservative Party,” and that Pierre had RackNine's CEO's name and number, what other measures were taken to ensure RackNine was not breaching its exclusive contract to the CPC? None are mentioned.

The materials filed by Elections Canada also say that: 'RackNine also told Elections Canada that the operative had identified himself as a University of Ottawa student studying by correspondence and located in Joliette." Still no mention of how Pierre Jones/Poutine satisfied RackNine that he was authorized by the CPC to use the system as part of its exclusive agreement.

I'm sure RackNine takes its legal obligations seriously, especially when dealing with a good customer like the hyper-controlling Conservative election machine. A potential breach of contract with the CPC by allowing access to persons of unknown (or at least unproven) political allegiance is something that requires at least one more question to be asked, specifically:

"Thanks for the call Mr. Jones/Poutine. Who exactly in the Conservative Party - with whom I have an exclusive contract - has authorized your use of my election services? Of course I'll be calling them to check and make sure I'm not breaching my exclusive contract with one of my biggest clients."

Was this done? There's no indication in the article that the super-sensitive services were provided on any more than name-dropping and having dialed the CEO's direct line. How does this square with the fine print exclusivity clause of the RackNine service contract? I don't know.

Maybe someone will ask when Elections Canada reports to MPs on March 29th. Hopefully they asked RackNine to fill in the blanks better than reported above.

RackNine is not under investigation itself by Elections Canada.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The "Robocall" smoking gun

The "robocall" voter suppression fraud has all the elements of a Scooby-Doo mystery, but the same principles apply in looking at the evidence to figure out if the guilty party is really a sea monster or Old Man Johnson in a rubber mask.

Having worked in an IT shop for a while and with automated election systems, there are several questions I noticed need to be asked.

The so-called robocall centre is a Voice Over IP system (VOIP) that can send out tens of thousands of calls an hour from a server through the Internet to phones anywhere. It makes the calls simultaneously like a bulk email.

To use it you need only a few simple things:
1) An account with an Internet service provider that has the specialized robocall software
2) An uploaded list of target phone numbers from a database or spreadsheet
3) A recorded message, called in from a phone anywhere

An account with an ISP needs several things. You have to sign up for the service, which means providing email confirmation, contact data and, most importantly, payment. Emails can be set up from any number of anonymous sites, like Hotmail or Gmail, but even they leave traces, like what IP addresses you log in from. Anyone who works in the IT world can make it very hard to trace an email by using proxy servers designed to mask where you are.

Payment is more difficult, especially when paying for expensive campaigns like the robocalls. Paying for all the alleged robocalls at once would be an expensive proposition, and multiple small payments increase contact and risk of identity detection. Online payments for Internet services are generally by credit card or PayPal. We know PayPal's records have been requested by Elections Canada. PayPal is serious about not being a source of money laundering, and so is careful about identifying users of their services.

We have heard that a pre-paid credit card has been used to pay for the cell phone used to make the recorded message for the robocalls. It is safe to assume it was used to make PayPal payments too. PayPal will also log IP addresses for transactions, which would have to be disguised as well.

Many ISP services are completely automated and self-serve, although you would think some human IT hands would be involved in a provider of primarily sensitive political call services, at least in the verification of accounts. If this was piggybacked on an existing client's account, the passwords and access would have to be very tightly controlled.

If "Pierre Poutine" used an existing Conservative robocall account, you would expect this would be a very short investigation. Few people would have the passwords let alone the authority to access the account.

Robocall accounts do several things. They not just make the calls, but they provide users with detailed lists of when calls were made, how many we're connected and even how long people listened to them. This is important for legitimate businesses to know if their calls are going through and effective. These reports are either available to download through the website or are emailed to the user. Again, each interaction with the robocall server produces an IP log.

That brings us to the lists themselves.

If the fraudulent robocalls were targeted specifically at Non-Conservative voters, that list had to come from somewhere. It is hardly worth addressing the idea that the Liberals made these calls as Dean Del Mastro has said repeatedly. There is no sense in telling your own voters the wrong voting location, especially when the calls came from a highly politicized company that works almost exclusively for conservative parties.

I have explained below the only place these lists of non-conservative voters - many of whom were apparently elderly - could come from. An opponent's marked riding canvass list is the only reasonable place to collect this information. But that means to get it into a robocall database it has to be matched with local phone numbers and uploaded into a master database.

Ridings maintain their own local databases of "marked lists" of voters, so there has to be a central plan to collect non-Conservative voter data from ridings and individual polls that might "swing" with only a slim margin of votes. We know the robocalls were made to multiple swing ridings, so there was a coordinated effort. This required an overview of what was needed to win not just polls or ridings, but the election. In the compartmentalized world of the Conservative Party, this could only be the central campaign.

Having worked with databases of delegate and other lists, cleaning a list is a massive undertaking. Hardly the work of one person in a short time.

There were a number of different targeted ridings and polls. When the phone message was uploaded to the server for the robocalls, it had to be recording in multiple versions, as each polls was different, and to be believable each message had to be specific to the calling location. There is no point in telling a voter that their poll has been moved to a different riding, since it won't be believed. You need local intelligence of what to record in the 30 or so robo-messages so that their change in polling location is at least semi-believable with a riding-specific address. Not a small undertaking without local assistance in each riding and a central repository for the data. That local assistance has to be coordinated, at least enough to centrally record and upload the couple of dozen different voice messages tailored for each poll and riding deemed important enough to break the law and sway the outcome of an election.

The pattern of deception - throw-away cell phones paid for by cash-purchased credit cards, etc. - show the people behind the voter suppression fraud knew what they were doing was highly illegal and went to great efforts to not get caught.

Looking at each of these elements, it is also clear this is not the work of a rogue or lone gunman. The technology is a closely guarded "political super weapon" of the Conservatives, and not something most would be familiar with or have access to during the vital last days of what appeared to be a desperate last ditch bid for a Conservative majority. It requires a large number of man-hours and resources, money and access to the campaign-enhanced voter records of a couple dozen ridings. This isn't a prank Twitter account - it is a sophisticated attempt to use cutting edge technology to subvert democracy.

It doesn't take Scooby-Doo or Mystery Inc. to see why this could only happen as part of a carefully coordinated plan.

Friday, March 9, 2012

How to discourage the elderly from voting

There are discussions going on about how would it be possible to organize a voter suppression campaign aimed primarily at the elderly. I thought I’d set out some of the mechanics of a modern campaign that would make it possible to do so.

I’ve done door to door campaigning in elections going back to the late 1970s and as recently as 2011. Campaigning has changed a great deal since then, and technology now lets you use information you collect in ways never dreamed of back then.

All parties collect voter information. It is essential for identifying your supporters to get out the vote (GOTV) on election day, as well as recording sign locations and potential donors. The Conservative Party has been in the forefront of collecting and using voter data using methods perfected in the United States. It has been used by them to effectively out-fundraise the other parties and mobilize supporters at and between elections. The idea of the "perpetual campaign" has been embraced by all parties, particularly the CPC.

At election time, parties are given access to voters lists by Elections Canada, which has basic data including name, address and poll number. These used to be paper lists, but are now available as spreadsheets or databases. Parties collect additional voter data to supplement these lists by merging it with available phone data to produce call lists. Call lists are used to collect further voter identification data through phone banks or outsourced call centers.

At election time, door to door canvasses are organized by candidates in each riding. The purpose is to establish candidate presence, get lawn sign locations and identify supporters. Trained canvassers will also identify hot button issues and questions for follow up, potential swing voters who could be persuaded to vote for you, or potential donors and volunteers. Canvassers produce “marked lists” that are returned to the campaign office and entered into the master database.

Most parties are almost exclusively interested in collecting detailed information about their own supporters and are content to mark supporters of other parties only by their affiliation as a kind of rough straw poll and to make sure they do not waste their time and resources on them.

But the consultants that have advised the Conservative Party have reportedly expressed that a successful party is not only interested in collecting not just details about their own supporters, but also details about supporters of other parties, as is done in the United States. There is nothing illegal about that. It is however open to abuse.

For example, if an unscrupulous campaign has decided to pursue a program of voter suppression (tricking or manipulating the other parties’ supporters into not voting) instead of just identifying your supporters to get them to vote in maximum numbers of election day, the information collected about opposing voters can be used against them.

For example, if the most easily dissuaded groups of voters are considered to be elderly or immigrants, an effort is made to identify them through call centers and door to door canvassing. Information can be gathered through phoney “polls”, directing requests for support, the presence of lawn signs or the canvass. Useful personal details (“Liberal / elderly”) are recording into the database.

In the case of the recent “robocall” controversy, a subset of the data could be uploaded to an automated call centre that singles out only those voter records marked “Liberal / elderly” in the database, and an automated call goes out to them to divert them on election day to a false poll location. Individuals are singled out on the basis of being the most easily “suppressed” from voting, such as the elderly with mobility issues or those more likely to accept an official-sounding call that may be misrepresented as coming from an official (ie: non-partisan) source.

Before technology it was not unheard of for voters to get a call on election day supposedly from the campaign they support telling them: “We’re going to win so you don’t need to bother to vote. Thanks for your support.” Of course the call came from an opposing candidate’s campaign and was an attempt at voter suppression. Some people don’t need much of an excuse to stay home on election day.

None of this is to say that this is what happened in Election 41 - that has yet to be seen - but this is the possible mechanics behind how it could have happened, and how easily a particular group such as seniors could have been identified and targetted for voter suppression techniques.

And shame on anyone who would attempt it.

See Toronto Star article March 9, 2012 here