In the run up to the 2015 Canadian federal election, the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) decided to mobilize its 256,000 student members to get out and vote, many for the first time in their lives. However, with limited resources and twenty-two student associations across the country, there was a steep learning curve. Through the use of digital mobilization tools, such as NationBuilder and Slack, CASA successfully recruited tens of thousands of Canadian university students to pledge to vote.
Over the coming weeks, we will explore the strategy and technology behind CASA’s Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaign. In this first instalment, we chat with Duncan Wojtazek, Director of Student Advocacy and Political Affairs at the Student Association of MacEwan University in Edmonton, where he was instrumental in mobilizing students on the front-lines of the CASA campaign.
An organized ground campaign was new for CASA. How did the Council of Alberta University Students’ (CAUS) GOTV campaigns in the last two provincial elections inform CASA’s 2015 GOTV campaign? How was this national campaign different and what were some of the challenges that CASA had to address in order to execute it?
CAUS — and other GOTV efforts from other elections — showed CASA that this campaign was possible. It demonstrated that getting students out to vote had an impact, while simultaneously avoiding many of the pitfalls associated with being partisan one way or another. It also delivered good advocacy value for relatively scarce resources. Provincial and national advocacy campaigns targeted at the general public can be enormously expensive. By contrast, focusing on our own student members managed to generate earned media at a much better value.
CASA’s membership is far more diverse than CAUS’ is. Encompassing schools of different sizes, different kinds of students, and in different areas of the country meant different tactics had to be deployed by individual schools. A provincial campaign quickly develops a province-wide narrative that is easier to fit your campaign inside of. But a federal election is better seen as a series of regional campaigns that feed into a national result, which makes targeting your message more difficult. The national campaign was also different in that there was more than one party competing on the progressive side of politics, making messaging targeted toward younger voters and students more difficult.
What was your campus voter contact strategy? How did you structure your campus team?
Our team was led by our elected VP External and our hired Director of Advocacy; also involved in the team was our Research Assistant who served as our volunteer and canvass coordinator, as well as our marketing department who managed visuals for the campaign. Our VP External handled volunteer training and recruitment, classroom visits, and served as our spokesperson. She also handled a significant portion of our phone calls and some data entry. Our Director of Advocacy drafted copy and dealt with the backend of NationBuilder, as well as managed the campaign budget. Our Research Assistant oversaw volunteers and served as stand-in volunteer for missed shifts and other opportunities.
Classroom visits and volunteer canvassing were the most successful strategies to invite students to pledge to vote. We also encouraged student clubs to solicit pledges and offered cash prizes to clubs to get students to sign up, but this was less successful. We offered 101 prizes (one iPad Mini and 100 $10 gift cards to MacEwan Food Services) which may have encouraged some students to sign up for our campaign.
How did you collaborate with other campuses across the country?
We liaised with other student associations in Alberta, trying to glean what worked and what didn’t work on their respective campaigns and campuses. We weren’t the only CASA GOTV campaign in Edmonton. We encouraged reporters to check out the nearby University of Alberta Students’ Union campaign, where CASA’s National Advocacy Team chair Dylan Hanwell is based. Altogether, we wanted to give the story a community-wide feel.
You used NationBuilder as your community organizing system. How did it contribute to your campaign? How did it differ from systems you’ve used on past campaigns?
NationBuilder was very efficient and robust for tracking supporters. Making lists of supporters and sending them targeted messages was fantastic with NationBuilder.
CASA worked with Apathy is Boring and Groundforce Digital to deliver campaign training to teams across the country. Could you speak about the training and how it contributed to your campaign. How did you apply the lessons learned to your local campaign?
Groundforce Digital’s training on NationBuilder made the campaign website and database setup seem less daunting and allowed us to unlock more of the advanced features of the system. The presentation and material from Apathy is Boring was fantastic at setting up the “why are we doing this” question for our team. Training from both organizations was comprehensive whilst also allowing us the freedom to take what we like from the training.
What was your biggest takeaway from this campaign?
Student associations can make a difference in an election. We made a difference this election.
Given your experience, what advice would you give to other student leaders planning this type of campaign in the future?
Start early, and involve as much of your team as possible.