Friday, March 9, 2012

How to discourage the elderly from voting

There are discussions going on about how would it be possible to organize a voter suppression campaign aimed primarily at the elderly. I thought I’d set out some of the mechanics of a modern campaign that would make it possible to do so.

I’ve done door to door campaigning in elections going back to the late 1970s and as recently as 2011. Campaigning has changed a great deal since then, and technology now lets you use information you collect in ways never dreamed of back then.

All parties collect voter information. It is essential for identifying your supporters to get out the vote (GOTV) on election day, as well as recording sign locations and potential donors. The Conservative Party has been in the forefront of collecting and using voter data using methods perfected in the United States. It has been used by them to effectively out-fundraise the other parties and mobilize supporters at and between elections. The idea of the "perpetual campaign" has been embraced by all parties, particularly the CPC.

At election time, parties are given access to voters lists by Elections Canada, which has basic data including name, address and poll number. These used to be paper lists, but are now available as spreadsheets or databases. Parties collect additional voter data to supplement these lists by merging it with available phone data to produce call lists. Call lists are used to collect further voter identification data through phone banks or outsourced call centers.

At election time, door to door canvasses are organized by candidates in each riding. The purpose is to establish candidate presence, get lawn sign locations and identify supporters. Trained canvassers will also identify hot button issues and questions for follow up, potential swing voters who could be persuaded to vote for you, or potential donors and volunteers. Canvassers produce “marked lists” that are returned to the campaign office and entered into the master database.

Most parties are almost exclusively interested in collecting detailed information about their own supporters and are content to mark supporters of other parties only by their affiliation as a kind of rough straw poll and to make sure they do not waste their time and resources on them.

But the consultants that have advised the Conservative Party have reportedly expressed that a successful party is not only interested in collecting not just details about their own supporters, but also details about supporters of other parties, as is done in the United States. There is nothing illegal about that. It is however open to abuse.

For example, if an unscrupulous campaign has decided to pursue a program of voter suppression (tricking or manipulating the other parties’ supporters into not voting) instead of just identifying your supporters to get them to vote in maximum numbers of election day, the information collected about opposing voters can be used against them.

For example, if the most easily dissuaded groups of voters are considered to be elderly or immigrants, an effort is made to identify them through call centers and door to door canvassing. Information can be gathered through phoney “polls”, directing requests for support, the presence of lawn signs or the canvass. Useful personal details (“Liberal / elderly”) are recording into the database.

In the case of the recent “robocall” controversy, a subset of the data could be uploaded to an automated call centre that singles out only those voter records marked “Liberal / elderly” in the database, and an automated call goes out to them to divert them on election day to a false poll location. Individuals are singled out on the basis of being the most easily “suppressed” from voting, such as the elderly with mobility issues or those more likely to accept an official-sounding call that may be misrepresented as coming from an official (ie: non-partisan) source.

Before technology it was not unheard of for voters to get a call on election day supposedly from the campaign they support telling them: “We’re going to win so you don’t need to bother to vote. Thanks for your support.” Of course the call came from an opposing candidate’s campaign and was an attempt at voter suppression. Some people don’t need much of an excuse to stay home on election day.

None of this is to say that this is what happened in Election 41 - that has yet to be seen - but this is the possible mechanics behind how it could have happened, and how easily a particular group such as seniors could have been identified and targetted for voter suppression techniques.

And shame on anyone who would attempt it.

See Toronto Star article March 9, 2012 here