Do endorsements from Obama, Clinton constitute election interference?
EDMONTON -- Endorsements from high-profile foreign politicians have stirred up a debate about election interference.
Former U.S. president Barack Obama waded into the election fray Thursday to bolster the campaign of Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, wishing him luck in the upcoming election and crediting him for being an “effective leader.”
On Friday, former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton also weighed in, wishing him and “our progressive Canadian neighbours” the best in Monday's election.
While neither Obama or Clinton’s tweets explicitly call on Canadians to vote for the Liberals, the implication is evident from their support for the party.
U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, fully endorsed NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh on Friday, praising him for his efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic by saying, “That's why I support the @NDP and @theJagmeetSingh.”
Dozens of tweets, several of which were directed to the Elections Canada account, suggest that such endorsements constitute an interference effort.
“One foreign endorsement can be blown off as a friendly gesture. Two endorsements by foreign leaders is a coordinated effort and political interference,” read one tweet in response to Clinton’s message Friday.
“How is this not election interference,” read another tweet directed at the Elections Canada account.
Legally speaking, Obama, Clinton and Sanders’ tweets are in the clear.
According to the Canada Elections Act, foreigners can endorse candidates so long as they do not exercise what the Act calls “undue influence” — knowingly incurring expenses, such as donating money, in direct support of a candidate or political party, or by violating Canadian law in the process of providing support.
There is no evidence of any such activity on the part of Obama, Clinton or Sanders.
Elections Canada shared the same response on its Twitter account, stating that “A foreign citizen speaking about the Canadian election does not by itself constitute an instance of undue foreign influence under the Canada Elections Act.”
“While we cannot speak about specific cases, we can say that all individuals, Canadian or non-Canadian, are free to express their views on any topic during an election,” the statement continues.
In a statement to CTV News sent Thursday, after Obama tweeted his support for Trudeau, Canada's cyber spy agency said it has not detected any kind of foreign interference that meets the threshold for informing the public.
“The threshold for making an announcement is the emergence of exceptional circumstances that could impair our ability to have a free and fair election, whether based on a single incident or an accumulation of incidents,” a spokesperson for the Canadian Security Establishment said.
But, while there are no legal issues, these tweets may be cause for moral concern to some.
“Of course it’s inappropriate, but it’s not a major source of inappropriateness,” Conrad Winn, a professor of political science at Carleton University, told CTVNews.ca by phone Friday.
Similar allegations of election interference were brought forward during the 2019 campaign, after Obama publically endorsed Trudeau and Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg rallied against parties that supported the Trans Mountain pipeline.
At the time, Carleton University professor Marshall Palmer wrote, “Our national dignity is affronted when Canadians are forced to ask questions about the nature of foreign endorsements.”
“What American interests, for example, did Obama see as being served by Trudeau’s election? What did the Liberal Party offer in return? Perhaps nothing, but, as is often the case, the appearance of a conflict of interest can be just as humiliating as a real one.”
Should there be no clear conflict of interest, however, others say this type of endorsement is nothing more than political camaraderie.
“I would not regard what I would call pretty innocuous tweets by politicians in the United States as interference,” Maxwell Cameron, political science professor at the University of British Columbia, told CTVNews.ca by phone Friday.
“It's not unusual for people in other countries to comment on elections, particularly when they consider the stakes to be significant.”
But Cameron notes there is a clear distinction between a former president endorsing Canadian politicians versus a sitting president.
“I think if Biden were to have tweeted Barack Obama’s tweet… it would be inappropriate as the president,” he said. “Because, obviously, it’s in the Canadian national interest that whoever gets elected has a good relationship with the U.S. and Biden by doing that could irritate, let’s say for example, O’Toole and that could set U.S. relations off on a bad footing.”
Cameron notes that Sanders’ endorsement stands out because the U.S. senate does play a role in foreign policy, but maintains that it is within reason.
“It’s really for voters to make these judgements, whether they think these things are inappropriate or appropriate,” he said.
Tweets like those from Obama, Clinton and Sanders do not break any rules in the Canada Elections Act.