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Opinion

Strategic Voting Campaigns Should Be More, Well, Strategic

As should efforts to fight voter suppression. How about a national coordinator?

By Nick Fillmore 8 Sep 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Nick Fillmore is a Toronto freelance journalist and a member of The Tyee's National Pool of commentators (made possible by generous support of Tyee Builders -- please consider joining. He specializes in climate change and financial issues. He worked in several capacities at the CBC for close to 30 years, and is a founder of the Canadian Association of Journalists. Visit Nick's blog HYPERLINK here.

One objective of Stephen Harper's absurdly named Fair Elections Act is to make it harder for hundreds of thousands of Canadians to vote for the NDP, Liberals or Greens.

That's my conclusion, because his Conservatives know many people -- students, the marginalized and First Nations -- will have a harder time voting because of the changes. And they know those people would not likely vote Conservative.

But efforts to battle voter suppression by helping people register to vote are -- so far -- small and poorly coordinated. Campaigns to encourage strategic voting by those opposed to the Conservatives face the same problems.

The Council of Canadians contends some 770,000 people may have a difficult time voting because of the latest changes.

It's a credible claim. About 400,000 people used the Elections Canada voter ID card in 2011. That's no longer good enough. About 250,000 people will move during the election period and could have trouble proving their eligibility. And 120,000 people cast ballots after a registered voter in the same riding confirmed their identities at the polls. That's not allowed in this election.

Preventing those people from voting could be enough to hand Conservative candidates victory in a critical number of closely contested seats. Vote-splitting between Greens, Liberals and New Democrats could also lead to another Harper government.

Dozens of groups are organizing around the two issues, including NGOs like the Council of Canadians, unions like Unifor and the Public Service Alliance of Canada, and First Nations in many ridings. Social media is being enlisted by groups like Facebook's Canadians Rallying to Unseat Stephen Harper (CRUSH).

The groups are focused on encouraging people to vote and promoting strategic voting to support whichever candidate has the best chance of defeating vulnerable Conservatives in as many as 72 ridings.

It's the largest non-party political effort in Canadian history. But the campaigns are also disjointed, with little co-operation or co-ordination.

The two most active groups, the Council of Canadians and Leadnow's Vote Together, are conducting similar campaigns to encourage voting. People are asked to pledge that they will vote. So far fewer than 75,000 people have pledged on the two sites; many were likely already planning to vote.

Both groups are paying extra attention to young voters. The council hired activist Brigette DePape, the Senate page who held up a "Stop Harper" sign during the 2011 Throne Speech, to run its campaign. It hopes to convince up to a million young people to vote.

The Council of Canadians, Leadnow and other groups are conducting door-to-door campaigns and providing information on the requirements for voters. But the council and Leadnow are working on the ground in just 23 ridings, although they plan to reach more.

National coordinator needed

Dropping off literature and a voters' guide isn't enough.

Interestingly, at least one small group is doing a more thorough job. In Saskatoon's generally low-income downtown core, a group of about 15 volunteers have been trained to take people -- many of whom have never voted before -- through all the steps needed to cast their ballots.

The volunteers, equipped with laptops, printers and cell phones, go where people congregate. They show them the Elections Canada website and, if they're not registered, help them through the process. They make sure people have the needed pieces of identification.

"I started with one church I knew about that has a food market for core neighbour residents," says Stephanie Sydiaha, who launched the volunteer campaign. "I called the Food Bank, they were very eager, so we go there one afternoon a week."

"We've been going to a soup kitchen that feeds 1,000 people a day -- yes, in booming Saskatoon, they feed 1,000 people a day," says Sydiaha, a long-time activist. "These are people who are not reached by politicians, they don't have TV, or computers, etc. But they want to vote, believe me."

This kind of one-on-one facilitation should be used by other groups.

Voting was less complicated when Elections Canada enumerators went door-to-door registering voters and explaining where and how to vote, a process that was eliminated in 1997. "It's all part of voter suppression, making it as complicated as possible so people will just throw up their hands and stay home," says Sydiaha.

A difficult struggle lies ahead. The council and Leadnow are underfunded and raising money in dribs and drabs. A national coordinating committee could give all the groups the profile needed to raise the several million dollars needed for a national campaign to encourage voting. A similar coordinated effort could promote strategic voting to support whichever candidate appears to have the best chance of defeating Conservatives in ridings where they are vulnerable.

If the two-part campaigning works, it will be one of the main reasons why Canadians will wake up to a new government on Oct. 20.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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