The Numbers Behind An Election – A Local Election Agent’s View By Iain Hubert

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You will all have seen a lot of the numbers that are available around election times. There are numbers around polls – around the impact that these polls will have on voters by constituency and ward, and therefore the impact that this will have on overall number of seats in parliament and councillors in local […]

You will all have seen a lot of the numbers that are available around election times. There are numbers around polls – around the impact that these polls will have on voters by constituency and ward, and therefore the impact that this will have on overall number of seats in parliament and councillors in local councils.
As an agent for a candidate in a local election, I have to be aware of lots of other numbers to ensure that my candidate wins. You may be aware of some of this – for example you may wonder what happens when people knock on your door and ask you which way you are going to vote. However you may not be aware of how important all of these numbers are in helping one or another party to win a seat, and therefore win the overall election. Hopefully after reading this you will know more about what goes on behind the scenes, and you may want to try this yourself!
Election Register Data
A key part of any local campaign is getting hold of the election register data. For a fee the Local authorities will give you electronic copies of who lives in what houses and what their polling numbers are. This data is crucial in driving the other tasks that you have to do. One thing to be careful about the data is that it changes all the time – especially coming up to election time as people register. On the last day of registrations, almost ½ million people registered, which may upset your numbers.

The first real thing that you will do in an election is to deliver some leaflets. This can be done at any time and indeed there are advantages in delivering some leaflets well before the campaign. For the design of the leaflets you need to consider the local communities – what sort of things are they interested in, and how can you sell your policies to them. A key question is the balance of national policies and issues, and local ones, particularly when there are local and general elections on the same day.

How many leaflets do you need? To do this you need to look at the electoral register data, which will tell you how many households there are and where they are – it is always worth printing some extras just in case. Having paid and got the leaflets printed, then you need to deliver them. If you can afford it, you can get a local group to deliver the leaflets for you. If not then it is a case of getting the party workers to deliver them. This involves batching the leaflets into groups of streets, and then letting people go and deliver – making sure to be careful when posting the leaflets if there are any dogs around!

It is possible to do targeted leafleting. The easiest way to do this is geographically, making leaflets specific to the area that you are leafleting. This could be wider than the issues of the geography, for example leaflets in student areas would focus on student issues. It is also possible to do more targeted leaflets to people who have certain attributes. You need to capture these attributes, either by getting hold of other data sources, or in past canvassing, or you can assume the data – I have seen programs that will analyse names and tell you which people are likely to be in an ethnic community. Targetted leafleting is not done so much, and where it is it is mainly the geographic. The main reason is cost – there are benefits in large print runs – you can do smaller runs, but they are generally more costly, especially if you do them on a computer printer. On top of that delivering to different addresses can be difficult.

That being said, I have seen some leaflets that are created around individual estates, and also there is sometimes targeted mailing done for people who are postal voters, and thus have to be contacted earlier in the campaign.

Having got your leaflets out the next thing that you need to do is to go and talk to people. You can do this by setting up stalls in local shopping centres or other places where people congregate or pass through, however there is a danger that people you meet may not actually be from your area.
The best way to contact people is to ‘canvass’ them – i.e. knock on their door. In general there are 2 purposes for this activity. Firstly it gives you the chance to talk to voters directly, answer any concerns that they have, and find out what the key issues are. There is some evidence that canvassing alone can encourage people to vote, particularly for you.
The second advantage of canvassing is that you can build up some data on who is likely to vote for you.

 tmcphotos /
As an agent, one of the more important things is to keep control of the finances. Being able to report on what you have spent is a legal requirement, and failing to do so can either result in the candidate being disqualified, or in the worst case, criminal prosecution! Assuming that you have raised enough money for your campaign then there are some restrictions on what you can spend, and how you can spend it. The main restriction is on timing. For local campaigns there is a period known as the short campaign which is a number of weeks before the election. Within this period there is a limit to the amount that you can spend – which is £740 + 6p per elector. Note that this has to cover all costs, including postal or delivery costs (if you don’t have people to deliver leaflets for you). There are some considerations that can help to maximise return within these rules, for example, if you deliver leaflets before the short campaign starts then this will not count towards the expenses.

For general elections the rules are slightly more complicated, as there is also a long campaign during which you have another spending limit.
Get out the vote

 Igor Stevanovic /
So it is now election day – and you need to ensure that you get all your voters out. In close run elections this can have a major impact, and so it is worth trying as much as you can to get people out. By this time you should have identified the people who you think will vote for you. You can send them some last minute leaflets – especially if you have enough resource to deliver it. You could also target areas that you know are more favourable to you, even if this does pick up some non supporters.

Then as the day unfolds, you will start to go around houses knocking on peoples doors asking them to come out and vote for you. Ideally you will only do this to houses that have not yet voted – in times gone by when there were more local volunteers, this was done by collecting polling numbers at polling stations, then back in the committee rooms the numbers were ticked off the list, and people were sent around to ‘knock up’ people who had not yet voted. With fewer volunteers the knock up lists are used without any view of whether or not people have voted.

Knocking up can go on right up to the wire – the polls close at 10PM for both local and general elections now, and you will see parties out up to about 9:45 in streets that are close to polling stations – on quite a few occasions I have knocked on doors to find people already in pyjamas!!!
Finally 10PM comes, and you can relax – but only for a short while!

jdwfoto /

The count
Finally after all your hard work you get to see the results. All of the polling boxes will be sealed and taken to the building where the count is being held. When they start to count, they do this in 2 stages. In the first stage they count the votes cast in each of the boxes. It is useful information for future use to know how you did in each box (representing areas of your constituency) so often people are organised to sit and watch the basic vote count, and do a tally of how many votes people from each party get. By knowing how big each box is, then you can get a view of what the overall result will be. However you still have to wait for the full count to be complete and the result announced by the returning officer.
 Alexandru Nika /

So hopefully you can see that numbers and consideration of them, are important at all levels of the election – all that I need now is for my candidate to win!!!

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