Even before the robocall scandal, voters were shunning their phones, screening calls from political parties and getting irked by recorded campaign messages.

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This article was published 16/3/2012 (3426 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Even before the robocall scandal, voters were shunning their phones, screening calls from political parties and getting irked by recorded campaign messages.

Political parties need to go old-school -- return to more traditional, face-to-face contact to create a reliable list of supporters.

Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press
Former city councillor and unsuccessful provincial Conservative candidate Gord Steeves

WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Boris Minkevich / Winnipeg Free Press Former city councillor and unsuccessful provincial Conservative candidate Gord Steeves

That was one of the key lessons the NDP learned from last fall's provincial election, a lesson campaign manager Michael Balagus detailed last month at a meeting of party brass.

As the federal robocall scandal continues to blossom, both Conservatives and New Democrats say last fall's provincial election spawned skepticism about the effectiveness of automated phone calls as a voter identification tool.

"I think that was one of the biggest mistakes (the Conservatives) made in the last election," Balagus said.

Voters are simply not picking up the phone anymore, especially if they have caller ID, and automated surveys aren't a reliable way to identify voters, he said.

In Seine River, for example, the NDP's intelligence told them the Tories had a healthy number of marks, or potential voters, though they were relying heavily on automated phoning.

Worried, the NDP sent in more volunteers and canvassers, who found a different story at the door.

Health Minister Theresa Oswald beat former city councillor Gord Steeves by about 900 votes in what was one of the most-watched matchups of the campaign.

Steeves said his campaign did use robocalls, but came to the conclusion during the election that they might not be as effective as they had thought. Marking voters is an inexact science, and his feeling is robocalls are getting less effective every election.

"I personally would compare them with mass emails -- not useless but not really effective, either," he said. "I believe the only reliable way to truly mark votes is to identify the person, not just the household, and mark it and then repeat the process."

It's impossible to know how much each party spent on robocalls. Unlike Elections Canada, Elections Manitoba's legislation does not allow the public to see the stacks of invoices and receipts each party must submit to backstop audited campaign spending statements. Only short summary statements are made public.

Balagus said the NDP used robocalls modestly last fall, mostly to alert voters to an event such as a rally or to remind them advance polls were open. It didn't use them heavily to identify voters using what's called interactive voice response, where voters are asked to push one if they're voting NDP, two if they're voting Conservative and so on.

The Conservatives wouldn't comment on how widely they used robocalls last fall and whether that method of advertising and voter identification was effective.

"Calling is just one tool," spokesman Greg Burch wrote in an email. "We also use volunteers, canvas teams, door-knockers and hard-working candidates."

If robocalls and phone banks are losing their punch, the NDP believes it needs to turn its attention to more door-to-door voter contact.

The NDP's system of getting "marks" or "checks" -- its master list of identified voters -- has an 85 per cent success rate. In the last election, the party identified nearly 234,000 marks and won about 199,000 votes provincewide.

But even the NDP admits the culture of political volunteerism is on the wane, so a return to the good old days of door-to-door canvassing might be difficult.

NDP campaigns reported they did not have enough volunteers in the last election, and the volunteers they did have often did not live in the riding.

"Looking ahead, it is getting more and more difficult," Balagus said.

Despite the robocall scandal, Balagus said automated phone calls will still have a place in campaigns because they allow a party to do "quick and dirty" riding polls to gauge support. The trick is to go back and solidify the vote with a knock at the door or a live call, Balagus said.

maryagnes.welch@freepress.mb.ca