Tighten robocall rules, group says

Elections Alberta received thousands of complaints over robocalls used in the recent provincial election but neither the Tories nor the Wildrose party are ready to call for new legislation or regulations on the technology.

However, a national good-governance advocacy group says there are steps the province can take to deal with the concerns raised, which include the sheer volume of calls going to individual households and anonymous calls.

Tyler Sommers, co-ordinator for Democracy Watch, said Alberta could tighten the rules around what information parties can communicate using automated calls and require identification by a party in all cases where it uses the technology.

The province should also establish a registry of companies that provide automated calling services and beef up the investigative and enforcement powers of the chief electoral officer in such situations, he said.

Sommers said that even with a large number of complaints it is likely many more cases have gone unreported.

"It could be very much worse than it is and that's one of the reasons why we need the elections bodies to step up and ensure that the elections are fair and the rules are effective," Sommers said.

There is no provincial law regulating automated calls, meaning Elections Alberta was powerless to do anything with the complaints it received.

The use of robocalls has been controversial nationally because of allegations automated calls were used to misdirect voters from polling stations in some ridings in the federal election last spring.

The Wildrose party has made two complaints to Elections Alberta about robocalls during the campaign.

One relates to an automated call by the Alberta Federation of Labour, which Wildrose has suggested breaks provincial restrictions around thirdparty advertising.

The party is also alleging that calls falsely purporting to be from Wildrose were made to households in Grande Prairie and elsewhere at unusual times and at high volume, turning off potential voters.

During the campaign Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said the robocall technology was easily abused and that it would likely require vendors to be licensed and the disclosure of phone records after campaigns. She suggested she would speak to Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the election about new regulations.

But Shayne Saskiw, the party executive director who was elected in Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills last week, said Tuesday the party believes that both situations it raised during the campaign can be dealt with through existing laws.

The jury is out whether new remedies are needed, he said.

"There's no point in creating new legislation if there's already enforcement mechanisms out there," said Saskiw, who was named Wildrose justice critic on Tuesday.

Sommers said that while federal legislation is pending it will likely apply only to national elections and provinces will likely have to introduce their own laws on robocalls.

Progressive Conservative campaign manager Susan Elliott said she also would be reluctant to endorse new regulations at this point.

She said the use of automated calling is in a sense "self-regulating." Overuse of the technology produces a sharp reaction from voters, causing parties to pull back on their use, she said.

Elliott also questioned the effectiveness of a company registry.

"I'm a conservative by nature, which means I have an automatic tendency not to think legislation is always the right answer," she said.

Deputy chief electoral officer Lori McKee-Jeske said it is too soon to say whether Elections Alberta will call for new robocall restrictions to be introduced when chief electoral officer Brian Fjeldheim prepares his report on the election campaign.

The independent agency has also not yet quantified the exact number of complaints it has received around automated calls beyond its earlier estimate of thousands, she said.

Calgary Herald, Wed May 2 2012
Byline: James Wood

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