Opinion

How 'Get Out the Vote' Wins Elections

Surprise! Parties use this electoral weapon to confound polls and strategic voters.

By Bill Tieleman 6 Oct 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Bill Tieleman is a former NDP strategist whose clients include unions and businesses in the resource and public sector. Tieleman is a regular Tyee contributor who writes a column on B.C. politics every Tuesday in 24 Hours newspaper. E-mail him at weststar@telus.net or visit his blog.

"GOTV is a crucial part of winning close campaigns, and some campaigns do it better than others." -- Aaron Strauss, U.S. political analyst

Forget the polls. And ignore the noise on "strategic voting" -- which rarely has any impact on election results.

How do New Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals actually win ridings when they usually take under 50 per cent of the votes?

With a little-understood electoral weapon called GOTV: get out the vote.

First, you need to know that we don't have one election -- we have 338 separate elections to select the Member of Parliament in each riding.

The party that wins the most seats in an election forms the government -- so it's the MPs elected to Parliament that actually count, not national polls that don't reflect local reality.

That's why throughout this endless 11-week election, political parties have been canvassing at the door, by telephone, online and direct mail with two goals: persuade voters to support their party and track those results.

On election day -- and during advance polls -- that data goes to work. Each party has teams of supporters and paid staff all struggling to get out the vote.

Each party has its "marks" -- a numbers rating system on each voter contacted, indicating if they support their candidate and how strongly.

And that's why even a significant five per cent or more lead in the polls can mean nothing on E-day.

E-day surprise

Here's an example of how in a close race, any party with serious support can win the seat with a "GOTV surprise."

Let's say the Conservatives are polling 40 per cent of the vote NDP 35 per cent and the Liberals 25 per cent for simplicity's sake, with 100,000 eligible voters in the riding.

With 40 per cent, the Conservatives should have the most votes and win -- but wait.

If the NDP gets 50 per cent of its voters to the polls and the Conservatives and Liberals only 33 per cent, the NDP will have 17,500 votes versus the Conservatives' 13,200 and the Liberals' 8,250 -- and win the riding easily. That's the "GOTV surprise."

If every party had the same GOTV effort, money, number of volunteers and paid staff, phone banks, data and ability to utilize it, then the polling would dictate who wins -- but politics doesn't work like that.

In B.C., the Conservatives and NDP generally have the best "on the ground" GOTV campaigns because in 2011 those two parties won 21 and 12 seats respectively of B.C.'s then-36 seats, while the Liberals won two and the Greens one.

Why is GOTV particularly important in this election? Because to defeat the Conservatives and form a minority government with the most seats in Parliament, the NDP needs to win 35 more seats than they hold now nationally, while the Liberals need to win 100.

That means the Liberals task is almost three times harder -- not impossible but much more challenging.

Short of a disastrous drop in Quebec for the NDP with the Liberals the main beneficiary, it's hard to see where the Liberals could pick up 100 seats across the country.

Here in B.C., the NDP came in second in 18 of the Conservative seats, the Liberals in just 3 and the Greens in none.

This means, notwithstanding polls and voters changing party preference in 2015, that the Conservatives and NDP have demonstrated they have the two best GOTV efforts and are the most likely to be competing against each other in the overwhelming majority of B.C.'s now-42 ridings.

The third place party, the Liberals in this example, would need to get a 70 per cent turnout to match the NDP's 17,500 votes -- and a bit more than that to win.

Fourth past the post

What about the Green Party or other candidates? Unless they are polling in percentages similar to the other parties in our example, they have no chance to win.

But they can impact the possibility of the non-Conservative parties losing to the Conservative candidate if enough votes that might have allowed the NDP or Liberal to win instead go to a Green or other candidate.

That's not an anti-Green comment, it's a straightforward political analysis of the challenge facing any fourth or fifth party anywhere in the world. And Greens can potentially make the same argument against the NDP and Liberals in leader Elizabeth May's Saanich Gulf Islands riding, presuming she polls higher than the others.

Some will undoubtedly argue that this example under our first-past-the-post or single plurality electoral system illustrates the need for a proportional representation electoral system.

Fair enough argument, although every electoral system depends heavily on GOTV efforts to maximize seats won.

And under the mixed member proportional system used in many European countries and rejected by Ontario voters in 2007's binding referendum, this example would still result in the same candidate winning the local riding.

The MMP would somewhat balance that with a second ballot indicating party preference and then add elected members from each parties' list of candidates to roughly equal the national vote percentages of each party.

Nonetheless, and notwithstanding promises from the NDP, Liberals and Greens to introduce proportional representation, the 2015 election is not being fought with that system.

Sorry strategic voters

Strategic voting has been heavily promoted by Leadnow and other groups but as I have previously detailed in The Tyee, the facts are it rarely affects elections.

The problems are many and significant: to work strategic voting requires accurate and detailed riding level polling in many areas; a serious advertising and communications budget to get the word out to voters in multiple ridings; convincing up to 60 per cent of NDP or Liberal voters to support the party they have consistently opposed in the past; and overcoming strong campaigns and GOTV efforts by both parties -- who obviously completely oppose strategic voting.

And it's GOTV that will likely prove decisive in this election barring a sudden voter stampede to one party that would rival the surprising NDP victory in Alberta earlier this year -- when Rachel Notley's crew saw their vote quadruple over the previous election. That kind of movement happens extremely rarely.

But in this election, the main factor will be what Aaron Strauss observed: "Some campaigns do it better than others" -- and those campaigns will win seats on Oct. 19.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Election 2015

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