By Katrina Kairys
I was blown off last night. I really thought things were going well, and I suppose it started out okay, but we had a difference of opinion. There was just no chemistry, politically speaking. I’d love to tell you his name, but it’s strictly confidential under Canada’s Elections Act.
I was not at a candlelit dinner or round of speed dating. Instead, I spent the evening behind my computer with a phone glued to my ear, as did thousands of other Liberal volunteers across the country. Sure, most people would prefer not to be called by strangers at dinnertime, but phone banking is one of the most essential aspects of a grassroots campaign, second only to door-to-door canvassing. A wealth of information can be harvested, whether the conversation lasts one minute or 10 — voters’ habits and primary concerns can be identified, and potential donors and volunteers recruited. It’s far less glamorous than canvassing with a candidate, but doesn’t require the legwork and can even be done from the comfort of one’s own home.
Phone banking’s new portability is thanks to programs like Liberalist, a voter identification system connected to the mobile app MiniVan, which in turn is used by street canvassers to collect demographic data. The Liberalist system is based on VoteBuilder, an app that was first used by Obama’s on-the-ground campaign team.
The Conservative Party has its own app, CIMS to Go (C2G), which serves a similar function to Liberalist, but swaps out the red interface for blue. Meanwhile, the NDP still uses good old-fashioned paper and clipboards, requiring hours of painstaking data entry.
After canvassing with Rachel Bendayan in the Montreal riding of Outremont, I volunteered for the campaign’s phone bank. I was set up with a Liberalist account and given a brief training session. A volunteer took me through the database of voters, which lists names and phone numbers, along with the voter’s age and gender if known. For those that need that extra boost of motivation, a progress bar at the top of the screen fills up with Liberal red as more calls are made. Beneath each contact is a detailed script with question prompts and drop-down lists of answers. Will they be supporting Justin Trudeau? When do they plan to vote? Would they be interested in volunteering? Luckily, there is a French script too, something I heavily relied on when greeted with “bonjours” and “allôs.” After a few mock phone calls, and practising my pronunciation of the “our” in “bonjour,” I began dialing numbers.
Luckily, my receptionist skills came in handy thanks to my summers spent at a software company manning a telephone with as many buttons as a switchboard. I spoke to all types of people, which required some nerve on my behalf. For every person who was responsive and talkative, another was angry and annoyed. Or, even more often, had neither the time to speak with me nor the interest. I soon learned that phone banking, much like cold calling, is a rather thankless job. People will often hang up before you finish your first sentence. Or, they’ll claim they don’t speak English, French, or Italian, in the language they supposedly don’t speak. One past member of the Liberal Party sternly told me he cut up his membership card after the Liberals voted in support of the infamous Bill C-51, and immediately hung up. I don’t know if he was fully informed about the conditions of the Liberals’ support for the bill, as he didn’t even give me the chance to defend the Party. Oh well, on to the next one.
Phone banking is not for everyone, but for introverted, more timid volunteers it can be a perfect alternative to face-to-face canvassing. A good approach is to begin a phone call thinking, “I am surely bothering these people,” and “They’re probably right in the middle of dinner.” Then you’ll be well prepared for whatever the person on the other end has to say. If, that is, you even get a person — typically, one actual human being answers for every 10 calls that go to voicemail.
I always cross my fingers that a die-hard Liberal will pick-up and answer all my questions enthusiastically. We’ll laugh together, share stories, and engage in friendly banter. While some people do affirm their longtime support of the Liberals, others mention their back-and-forth voting between red and orange. Regardless, and in both parties’ favour, the phrase “We’ve got to get Harper out of there” is quickly becoming an old adage in Outremont.
It’s important that volunteers keep their cool, since they are representing their candidate and the national party. However, as no one is born with an endless supply of self-control, I’ve come up with a few tricks to keep things positive. Even though I’m not speaking with people face-to face, I make sure to always smile. It relaxes me and makes me sound much cheerier. Next, I make sure to remain calm, no matter how hostile someone is. I remind myself that there are at least a few kilometers between me and the other end of the line and that gives me peace of mind. Third, I practise any ethnic, hard-to-pronounce names at least thrice. Nobody likes to be disturbed in the middle of the evening and have their name butchered. I’ve gotten pretty good at the French names. The Greek and Tamil names are another story.
While it is definitely not the most thrilling job, phone canvassing can be especially rewarding when you have the opportunity to advise someone on an issue they were confused about, or to convince a rather passive person that their vote is just as important as anyone else’s. People are often amiable when they discover that I’m not a telemarketer and simply want to invite them to a local event hosted by their candidate. In this day and age of emails, tweets, and instant messaging, there is something uniquely personal about directly speaking with a volunteer who is ready and willing to answer your questions. That’s why, I think, I receive more positive responses than negative ones.
As long as I remember not to call any 80-year olds after 7:00 p.m.
Born and raised in Toronto, Katrina Kairys is a recent graduate of McGill University where she majored in psychology and world religions. She has a growing interest in Canadian politics and legal studies, and a passion to get more Canadian youth interested in their country and those that lead it.
Katrina’s campaign journal, Part 4: Election buzz