Forget the maxim that the only poll that counts is on election day. The "get out the vote" effort begins Wednesday at 8 a.m., when Elections B.C. opens its advance polls. How voters feel this week about their options does matter.
On the ground, strategists now put as much effort into the advance polls as they do on election day. It's an opportunity to lock up votes, it takes pressure off campaign workers, it gives busy voters more flexibility. Mostly though – it really bears mentioning twice – the parties love to secure their votes early, to avoid any last-minute wavering in support.
The federal Green Party got more votes on election day than the NDP did in last November's by-election in Victoria. The Greens surprised their opponents with a late surge. But victory went to the NDP's Murray Rankin because the New Democrats won the advance polls, giving them enough total votes to take the seat.
The Greens should have seen it coming, because it's a growing trend. In the 2001 provincial election, the advance polls accounted for less than 7 per cent of the total votes. By 2009, almost 18 per cent of voters cast their ballots early.
It could go higher still in this election. This week is the first major test of how the campaigns will shape the result of the May 14 election – even though the results won't be revealed until after the polls close on election day. Local campaign managers for the Liberals, the Greens and the NDP say this is a critical point in the 28-day campaign.
In Vancouver-Langara, Moira Stilwell's team will be out slapping bright yellow stickers on all their campaign lawn signs to highlight the advance polls. Dr. Stilwell's paid advertising will peak around the same time. And volunteers will be contacting Liberal supporters on the doorstep or by telephone to try to push as many voters as possible to this Wednesday-to-Saturday voting window.
"I started doing this in the late 1990s in municipal campaigns," said Dr. Stilwell's campaign manager, Kimanda Jarzebiak. "We were trying to meet individual needs of our supporters – people who needed translation services or had mobility issues. It was easier to get our supporters to advance polls where it was quieter and less rushed."
But when she saw the strategic benefits, it became a major part of her campaign strategy.
Paul Barnett, campaign manager for NDP candidate Carole James in Victoria-Beacon Hill, agrees. "We've always urged our election day workers to vote in advance so they are available on election day, but the Obama campaign taught us that getting our supporters out as well frees more of those who want to volunteer for us on election day." In the 2012 U.S. presidential race, one in four voters took advantage of early voting opportunities and the Democrats' emphasis on those polls helped secure Barack Obama's second term.
Mr. Barnett still expects to have 300 volunteers working on May 14 in Victoria-Beacon Hill, but it is a less stressful day if you already have a good part of your support locked away. "It avoids possible hiccups," he said.
Jonathan Dickie is managing the campaign for the Greens' Adam Olsen in Saanich North and the Islands. Mr. Dickie was a key organizer in the federal by-election campaign for Donald Galloway, whose victory was snatched away late in the evening as the advance polls were counted. "In the Victoria by-election, we tried to peak in the final week." The idea was to catch opponents off guard. "This is a more steady campaign," Mr. Dickie said. The four days of advance polls will be treated the same as election day. Other parties "won't take us for granted this time," he said.
For all kinds of reasons, the parties want supporters to vote early. But they aren't the only ones. Elections B.C. is trying to turn around a dismal trend of declining participation by making it easier to vote.
Barely half of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot in 2009. When Elections B.C. asked non-voters why, many said they were just too busy. So here it is: District electoral offices are open for voters every day of the campaign. There are five days where platoons of volunteers will be around to help you find your way to a polling station. And if that doesn't suit, you can pop your ballot in the mail. It will count, whenever you vote.