Michael Sona has been found guilty of a single count under the Elections Act, for “wilfully preventing or endeavouring to prevent an elector from voting,” or, in layman’s terms, calling 6,700 non-Conservatives and directing them to the wrong polling station in an effort to try to confuse them out of voting.
Sona, a Conservative party staffer, directly ties the Conservative party to the robocalls with this conviction. The reason it’s not a bigger deal is because the candidate he cheated for lost, and Sona was generally terrible at cheating. Voters in Guelph, Ontario reported that they received automated calls with instructions to go to incorrect polling stations from a “Pierre Poutine.” If/when they showed up at the incorrect polling station, Sona likely presumed that they would turn it into a communist commune rather than calling Elections Canada and asking where the correct station was. Or just, re-checking that letter they got that had a different polling address on it.
Sona probably now regrets that he dressed as Pierre Pouting one year, holding a cellphone and all, and according to witnesses gloated about “calling Liberal supporters late at night, like 11 o’clock at night, to make them mad, that type of thing,” and thanking Pierre after the election ended.
That’s just being transparently guilty, and it’s almost as though he was prouder of having committed a crime than obtaining results. The Conservative candidate for Guelph in 2011, Marty Burke, denies any knowledge of the robocalls, and actually lost the election by more than a few thousand votes. If you lose the election even when your staff are cheating, that’s a sure sign that they’re pretty bad at their jobs. Sona cheated and he lost, and now he’ll go to prison because he was so bad at hiding the evidence.
Interestingly enough, Judge Gary Hearn dismissed much of the testimony of Andrew Prescott, who handled IT for the campaign and liaised with RackNine, a company hired to make automated calls. To be clear, no one is denying that Burke’s campaign make automated calls, and fraudulent robocalls were placed, it’s whether the campaign placed fraudulent calls, which Sona definitely did.
Prescott agreed to testify on the condition of being granted immunity in the trial, so his hands were likely covered in blood (usually, if you need to ask for immunity before talking, you’re about to tell the world you’ve done something relatively illegal). But, Hearn thought he was self-serving, and convicted Sona based on the testimony of the other witnesses. Hearn thought Sona so guilty that he could dismiss the Crown’s star witness and still be sure “‘well beyond a reasonable doubt’ of Sona’s involvement as a party to the offence.” The defence didn’t even bother to call any witnesses.
A Conservative party spokesman, Cory Hann, responded by saying that “Voter suppression is extremely serious and those responsible should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.” The Conservatives’ Fair Elections Act aims to do just that by forcing parties to create a registry of all the robocalls they make, in order to be able to quickly and easily determine the owner of any fraudulent call. However, we’re only in this mess because of a Conservative staffer who broke the law. It’s fine to offer to pick up the pieces after your kid broke the plates, but if you spend any time gloating about how kind you are for picking up the pieces, people will just think that you’re an ass.
It is important to note that Elections Canada has concluded that there was little evidence of a coordinated effort to suppress votes across the country, though incidents in individual ridings, like Guelph, warranted further investigation. Michael Sona is the first conviction, but also likely the last. Ken Morgan, Burke’s campaign manage and Sona’s boss actually moved to Kuwait, and will likely never be subject to an investigation.While there may be some more accomplices in Guelph, as the judge suggested, it looks like the overall effect of fake robocalls on the 2011 election was trivial, and that all we can do is ensure that the guilty are brought to justice.