The mood is shifting as advocates begin to recognize the winning the transit referendum is not just theoretically plausible, but is a realistic likelihood. However, as in any electoral process, the outcome is never secure until voting day. That means that advocates and supporters will have to mobilize strategically to get us to ‘Yes’. As a community organizer with a background in policy, communications, and media relations, here’s ten tactics advocates will need to use to win the referendum:
1. Stay on message
As I’ve argued in a previous article, we don’t need to sell the benefits of transit as the public already gets it. As a result, this referendum is quite simple – it’s a basic transaction. Citizens contribute money and in return they receive the following improvements over the next ten years. In other words, if you want the improvements, you’ll vote ‘Yes’. This is the ‘unique value proposition’ or the sales pitch. Tell voters what they get.
The Broadway subway, Surrey LRT, 11 new B-Lines, a new Pattullo Bridge, a third Seabus. In just ten years. That’s the sale, those are the key deliverables.
Always keep this message front and centre.
2. Don’t focus on the funding
Yes, the referendum is about a 0.5% regional sales tax. But never start a message with the price tag. That’s just sales 101. You always begin with the product. Then, if necessary, you follow up with the price.
For the referendum, there’s two messages on price. First, we need to drive home the fact that the 0.5% regional sales tax will cost each household just $0.35 per day.
This is a critical number. When put in that context, it’s chump change and an easy sale after laying out the major projects it would fund.
On an annual basis, it comes out to $125 per year for each household. But that’s a big number and there’s no need to state it on an annual basis.
The main advantage of the sales tax approach is that it’s a small contribution spread out over the entire year on a variety of purchases, rather than the lump sum fee approach of a vehicle levy. So let’s stop saying it will cost a household $125 per year, and start saying it’s just 35 cents a day.
Secondly, some people continue to debate the merits of the sales tax as the preferred funding source. At the end of the day, it’s been chosen and it’s what’s on the table. But, there is a good response to this argument: the sales tax is the most affordable and equitable approach. Because more people contribute to it, the ultimate contributions of each individual are lower. By comparison, a vehicle fee or carbon tax would cost each household $230 per year. Use this line if it comes up.
3. The best defense is a good offense
Opponents will try to derail the messaging. They will turn this into a debate about TransLink, its management, executive pay, ridership, efficiencies, alternative solutions. Don’t pay into their hand. That’s not what this ballot question is about – see #1 & #2.
If we’ve learned anything from Stephen Harper, especially in the last election, it’s the effectiveness of staying on the message. In every interview, every stump speech, every debate, he repeated to same message: “a strong, stable, majority Conservative government”.
Lo and behold, that’s what he got. Opponents said he was ignoring the debate and maybe so, but he knew what was effective and what would win.
Campaigns are about power and politics. Never let your opponents seize the conversation or derail your campaign.
So when the media asks for retorts to the arguments of opponents, answer in a very benign and simple way, but always pivot back to the key message: what people will get if they vote ‘Yes’. The job of the advocates is not to justify TransLink’s current operations or shield executives from criticism. It’s to win a very simple referendum.
So never, ever play into the hand of opponents. Stay on the offensive and stick to the message.
4. Correct basic wrongs, privately
There’s a difference between conversations happening in major media and those happening in person. In #3, I essentially argued that as an advocate, you should generally try to ignore opponents who try to make the referendum about something that it is not. This is critical when on TV, the radio, the newspaper or even on social media because these exchanges are often in short form and the entire message can get derailed if you give opponents the time of day.
However, if you’re talking about the referendum to co-workers, friends, or family, you have a more neutral and private space in which to correct basic wrongs when presented.
There’s a lot of misconceptions about the referendum and if you can provide some simple information to negate much of the negative public perception about transit or TransLink, use that opportunity. Unlike with major media, it’s not going to be broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people. Plus, when in a conversation with a person one-on-one, they are much more likely to trust your opinion, take you seriously, and show you respect. Those courtesies fly out the window in media, so it’s a different game.
I’d still focus primarily on the core message, but if you’re presented with some counter arguments, use that private opportunity to correct basic wrongs, or tell them how you see things differently and why.
5. Flood the airwaves
Back seven years ago, there was a lot of chatter about restarting the Interurban rail system to bring better transit south of the Fraser. One of the most effective approaches of that campaign was their strategy to flood the airwaves. Every few months, they would organize a day on Facebook to encourage supporters to write letters to local newspapers, phone into radio talk shows, and usually organize some physical rally to get into the daily TV news. This strategy enabled the Interurban supporters to gain positive press and create the perception that there was a groundswell of support for the initiative, regardless of whether that was true or not.
Often times, it seems like local media, particularly news talk radio, is dominated by cranky callers who like ranting about anything or everything. It’s our job as advocates to utilize these platforms that are presented to us by the media as effectively as the cranks.
So organize days to flood the airwaves. Make the case as to why you support a ‘Yes’ vote. Stay on message. And help build a perception through major media that the ‘Yes’ vote is winning the campaign. You will convince some folks to join the bandwagon in the process.
6. Personify the campaign
One of the eternal dilemmas of TransLink’s poor perception is that it remains a faceless organization. Without a clear person at the helm, it’s a lot easier for folks to bash the agency than to treat its staff with respect and basic courtesy. We’re not going to change that over the next few months, but what we can do is learn from that failure and make sure that we personify the referendum campaign.
Citizens need to see the faces and hear the stories of their fellow citizens. They need to know that the referendum is not an abstract concept with abstract outcomes, but that it is a real proposal with real benefits and outcomes that can improve people’s lives.
There’s a scene in the Harvey Milk movie that changes the campaign for gay rights. It’s when Milk demands his supporters to come out. And not just to their close circle of friends, but to that next circle – family, co-workers, acquaintances. It personified the gay rights debate and put a face to the abstract concept of discrimination and equality. We must do the same.
One key element of this approach though is to also publicly present the local celebrity endorsements. We know the mayors are on side. That’s great. But we need some star power.
There was a minor celebration among cyclists earlier in the year when Trevor Linden said on talk radio that he supported expanded cycling options and the new Point Grey seawall route. That was a powerful endorsement from somebody outside the bubble that most common Vancouverites hold a lot of respect for. We need Trevor Linden to publicly support this referendum.
And there’s plenty more folks like him who hold clout and influence in their own circles:
- Businessman Jim Pattison
- Former Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts
- Environmentalist David Suzuki
- VANOC Chair John Furlong
- Artist and Author Douglas Coupland
- Condo King Bob Rennie
- Entrepreneur Ryan Holmes
- VanCity President Tamara Vrooman
- Singer Michael Buble
- Actor Michael J. Fox
- Actor Seth Rogen
- Comedian Brent Butt
- Singer Sarah McLachlan
- Singer Bif Naked
- BC Lions Quarterback Travis Lulay
- Former Whitecaps Captain Jay DeMerit
Get them on board, get their faces in the paper, and maybe even get them on the street canvassing for a day or two (see #9).
7. Database of supporters
Most of what we’ve talked about so far has been building a base of supporters. But that base doesn’t matter much if you don’t get them to vote. The key to any get-out-the-vote strategy is creating a database of supporters.
The ‘Yes’ side needs a list with names, numbers, addresses, and contact information. This is so much more than a Facebook page. Much of the federal Conservatives’ success has been tied to their comprehensive data mining and supporter identification system; the same could be said about Vision Vancouver.
The political parties that are on the ‘Yes’ side will provide a strong list from which to start from. Municipally, Vision Vancouver, Surrey First, and the Burnaby Citizen’s Association have strong machines built on this type of voter identification data. The BC NDP, which leveraged their supporters lists in the HST referendum, will be valuable as well. If the BC Liberals bring their data to the table, a very strong data driven supporter mobilization system can be created.
This information is critical because the ‘Yes’ side needs to know who its supporters are and make sure they vote. By having the data, they can check off those who have cast their ballot over the two month voting period and send reminders to those who haven’t. They can also make targeted advertising campaigns, sending different messages to existing supporters versus those who can be persuaded with additional information.
8. Pamphlets and robocalls
While there will likely be a strong database from the get-go, there is also going to have to be a concerted effort to build and expand the ‘Yes’ base. Two of the most effective strategies are pamphleting and robocalls. These two strategies have propelled Surrey First’s sweeping victories over the last two elections.
Pamphleting to houses, either targeted or en mass, is an effective method to present all the information to voters about the referendum and sell them on the benefits directly. It can also present a call to action, asking the voter to register their support if they intend to vote ‘Yes’.
Robocalls are even more effective from a data gathering perspective. Relatively cheaply, organizers can follow up on pamphlets to ask for people’s opinions on the referendum or confirm their support with simple touch-tone responses. When the message is personalized, like in the last municipal campaign in Surrey where former Mayor Dianne Watts urged folks to support her candidate Linda Hepner, it can be powerful. Robocalls can also be used at different stages of the campaign to see how support has shifted depending on different electoral or messaging strategies.
Key to both strategies though is building the base of supporters and getting their information into the database. Doing this region wide would be expensive, but is critical to winning.
9. Canvass on the street
Getting advocates on the ground selling the message may not be tremendously effective in terms of gaining a mass of supporters, but it does make for good imagery on the news, which extends that message ten fold.
Don’t bother with door-to-door – there’s no time for that. Be effective and efficient. Park yourself outside transit loops and SkyTrain stations, at the universities’ student hubs, at major downtown intersections. Bring some placards, some pamphlets, and register supporters.
Pair this strategy with #5 and #6 for increased effectiveness.
10. Project confidence
Power and politics is about confidence. When your project confidence, most people will feel a sense of comfort and security. They will respect you, listen to you, and want to join your team.
You can bet opponents will be doing their best to derail us, undermine us, divide us, and make us feel like the underdogs, but we’re not.
We’re already the majority.
We know that this is the right plan and the right solution. With a ‘Yes’ vote, we will make Canadian history and move our region forward.
Keep this in your heart and mind. It will give you a sense of power, clout, and confidence which will help distinguish us from the mudslingers, the naysayers, the Tea Partiers, and the ambivalent. And it will propel us to victory.
And… #11: Register voters!
One extra tactic that particularly applies to the student societies. Just because you’re entitled to vote, doesn’t mean you necessarily will unless you are registered under Elections BC! They have yet to clarify what the cutoff date will be for voter registration, but to make sure the student voice counts, get registered ASAP! If you need to update your voter info, do it!
Update: #12: Get Visual
One more thought: This referendum needs visuals! The projects are still words, and one of the best ways to help people see the future then can choose is to create a package of visuals. Yes, that means maps with routes, but let’s take the next step and do some renderings, either in images or video, of the SkyTrain extension or the new Pattullo Bridge.
The province consistently creates renderings for its major projects, ie the Port Mann or Massey Bridge. Surrey has also created a great video with renders of its LRT proposal. These are powerful and end up being used my major media when writing stories on these projects.
The ‘Yes’ side should produce renders, distribute them to media, post them on social media, include them in pamphlets, and maybe even some TV ads if there’s the budget.