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Ontario Liberals to target ethnic voters with demographic database software

Ontario Premier, Kathleen Wynne speaks at the Ontario Liberal Party's 2014 Heritage Dinner in Toronto on March 20, 2014

Mark Blinch/The Globe and Mail

The Ontario Liberals are stepping up their efforts to target voters by ethno-cultural group ahead of a spring election, banking on off-the-shelf software to map the electorate's demographics down to the address.

The development, announced at a closed-door campaign briefing last month, is part of a push by the governing party to catch up with their Progressive Conservative counterparts, who are said to have built a mighty computer program that can slice and dice demographic data to find the best ways to reach out to voters.

Such technology could ultimately make the difference – especially in the seat-rich multicultural suburbs ringing Toronto, which will likely determine the winner of the next vote.

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In a record of the Liberals' March 22 briefing obtained by The Globe and Mail, campaign director Patricia Sorbara described the new tool as "ethnic append" software from Connecticut-based Pitney Bowes, which adds cultural information to the party's lists of potential supporters.

"It is basically a program … that integrates the cultural background of our voters with the voter file," she told hundreds of party organizers gathered at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

The party has also adopted Liberalist, the database built by its federal cousin, she said.

A Liberal source said the software processes census data that can then be fed into Liberalist and matched to individual addresses. It would show, for instance, which houses or apartments are likely to contain Italian-speaking residents, allowing a campaign to target them with Italian-speaking volunteers.

The software lets users see where particular cultural groups are clustered, so they can tailor their campaign efforts to the community. If the tool identified a neighbourhood with a high number of Muslim residents, for example, a campaign can structure its canvassing efforts around prayer times, the source said. The program has already been used by the federal Liberals.

Pitney Bowes makes a range of commercial software generally used by companies for marketing campaigns or to analyze demographic data when determining where to do business.

Provided with a sketch of her briefing, including the software, Ms. Sorbara declined to be interviewed.

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"I don't comment publicly on campaign strategy and would therefore not have had anything to add to your outline," she wrote in an e-mail.

The PCs are believed to already have sophisticated technology for determining where key voting demographics are and how to reach them. Their techniques are a closely guarded secret, but one insider said the party overhauled its program after the 2011 election and further tweaked it after two by-elections last winter.

Even Liberal insiders privately concede the opposition party is ahead in the technological ground game.

In her briefing, Ms. Sorbara suggested deficiencies in the Grits' old database were partly to blame for the party's by-election losses. She described Liberalist as more "user-friendly." The new database can perform basic functions such as sorting addresses into an optimal route for canvassing, the source said, which the previous system could not.

More than half of the Liberals' seat count in the last election came from ridings in Toronto's inner suburbs or in the 905 belt just outside the city. The Tories, meanwhile, can only form government by taking away some Grit seats in the area and the New Democrats, who are looking to establish themselves as a serious contender for power, must make inroads beyond their lone seat in the region.

While the Grits have historically counted immigrant communities as a major part of their base, the federal Tories have peeled away much of this vote, and their provincial party is hoping to do the same.

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