Hundreds of Yukoners may have received a misleading phone call during the last federal election, suggests a new poll by Ekos Research Associates.
If the national pollster’s report is correct, this so-called robocall campaign may have swayed the election’s outcome in the Yukon, where Conservative upstart Ryan Leef knocked out Liberal incumbent Larry Bagnell by just 132 votes.
The Council of Canadians commissioned the robocall research report. It will use the results in its challenge of election results in seven ridings, including the Yukon’s, said its executive director Garry Neil.
“I don’t think there’s much doubt that these fraudulent calls happened,” said Neil. “They were at a magnitude that was very significant.”
In an interview Wednesday, Leef dismissed the poll’s findings as “a completely biased effort to sway public opinion.”
And he expressed doubts that robocalls would have deterred many Yukoners from voting.
Voter turnout in 2011 was up three per cent from 2008 and above the national average, said Leef.
“If someone tried to suppress the vote, they did a really poor job of it,” he said.
In all, tens of thousands of Canadians are believed to have received false phone calls across seven ridings in which Conservatives won by narrow margins. Voters were typically told, incorrectly, their voting station had moved.
Non-Conservatives were three to four times as likely to receive one of these calls, says the Ekos report.
That “strongly suggests that in the subject ridings there was a targeted program of voter suppression in place,” the report concludes.
Yukon resident Bob Nardi, who received a misleading call about his polling station having moved, greeted the results as a confirmation of what he suspected.
“It’s hardly surprising,” he said. “It was what I said all along.”
Ekos interviewed 3,297 Canadians across the seven disputed ridings. That included 466 Yukoners.
Pollster Frank Graves suggests these calls would have deterred 1.5 per cent of voters from casting a ballot. The margin of error for this figure would range from 0.8 per cent to 2.2. per cent.
“Let’s translate that into real world terms for the Yukon,” said Neil. “The margin of victory was 132 votes and you had 24,341 electors. If you apply the lowest figure in the range, you get 195 people who didn’t vote. If you apply the highest figure on the range, you get 537 people who didn’t vote.
“Even if you apply the margin of error and take the absolute lowest figure, you still come up with more people who didn’t vote than the margin of victory as a consequence of these calls,” said Neil. “That, in our view, is a pretty strong argument.”
The Yukon is one of three ridings where the vote may have been swayed based on these numbers. The others are Nipissing-Timikaming, in Ontario, and Elmwood-Transcona, in Manitoba.
This sort of complicated statistical analysis involves a necessary amount of guesswork. For example, it’s hard to say with certainty how many Canadians didn’t vote because many non-voters won’t admit to this.
“There’s a very strong social bias against saying, ‘No, I didn’t vote,’” said Neil. “When Statistics Canada does its analysis, it says there’s a fourfold difference. So if 10 per cent of Canadians say they didn’t vote, that really means 40 per cent of Canadians didn’t vote.”
But Graves only used half that figure to err on the side of caution. “There are some who say his analysis is very conservative,” said Neil.
Skeptics will note that even 10 per cent of Conservative voters reported receiving illegitimate calls. That can partly be explained by “false memory,” said Neil.
“Now that everybody’s heard about this, there are some people who will say, ‘Oh yeah, I got one of those calls.’ So that becomes the baseline.”
But false memory can’t explain why the majority of misleading calls targeted non-Conservatives.
Some will suggest this is only evidence of sour grapes. But the pollsters tried to control for this effect by also polling a sample of 1,500 Canadians in ridings that weren’t hotly contested. Non-Conservatives didn’t appear to be targeted in the same fashion elsewhere.
It’s also possible some Conservatives received inadvertent calls because they voted for another party in a previous election or their partner did, said Neil.
“There are legitimate reasons why Conservatives might get a call,” he said.
Whoever organized the robocall campaign would need to be a high-ranking Conservative in order to access the party’s voter database, said Neil.
Candidates, like Leef, may not have been aware of the operation, he said.
“It may have been one or two people who decided to launch this without authority from higher or letting their people on the ground know,” he said.
Leef accused Graves of harbouring Liberal sympathies. He noted that in the spring of 2010, Graves encouraged the Liberals to fight a “culture war” battle with the Conservatives by painting their right-leaning opponents as prejudiced and intolerant.
And the poll offered an inducement of a $500 draw prize, said Leef.
“There’s not a courtroom on this planet that would accept that way of soliciting evidence,” he said.
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