Vancouver political activist Jamie Biggar never expected to devote massive amounts of his time to voter engagement. But he and fellow young climate-change activists realized that something had to be done after the 2008 federal election when Stephen Harper’s Conservatives retained control of the federal government with just 38 percent of the votes.
“We watched as 62 percent of voters cast ballots for parties that were advocating strong climate action,” Biggar recalled during an interview with the Georgia Straight in a Library Square coffee shop. “But because of our broken first-past-the-post electoral system, their votes split and we had a minority government led by the other folks.”
That prompted him and his friends to create a website called Canadians for a Progressive Coalition. It advocated for the non-Conservative parties to work together on climate action and other issues. Biggar, 32, said that it morphed into Leadnow after it became clear to the organizers that Harper was intent on trying to “monkey-wrench” the 2009 UN climate conference in Copenhagen. Leadnow’s website shows that its staff is almost entirely composed of younger people, though there are also older volunteers.
In the period leading up to this 2015 election, Leadnow has launched an ambitious campaign, called votetogether.ca, that is targeting Conservative candidates in 72 ridings. Earlier this year, former Vancouver park commissioner Lyndsay Poaps, 36, became Leadnow’s executive director. Sitting beside Biggar in the coffee shop, she explained that the goal of votetogether.ca is to focus on those areas where the Conservatives elected MPs in 2011 or would have elected MPs under redistribution with less than 50 percent of the vote.
“We have 11 ridings where we have actual teams on the ground,” Poaps added.
So how big is this operation? Leadnow says on its website that more than 87,000 Canadians have already pledged their vote to support the candidate with the best chance of defeating Harper. Almost 500,000 supporters have taken part in its decision-making processes, which take place through face-to-face meetings and via online surveys.
According to Poaps, there are more than 2,000 monthly donors. “Leadnow is made up of a lot of people with very strong values but who are not politically aligned and felt they didn’t have a political home,” she said. “I think we provide that for them.”
As part of the plan to defeat the Conservatives, Leadnow has financed three sets of Environics riding polls—12, then 31, and another 12—to reveal who are the best bets to beat the Conservatives in swing ridings. The group recently released its third poll in the new riding of Vancouver Granville. The Conservative candidate, Erinn Broshko, is competing against Michael Barkusky of the Greens, New Democrat Mira Oreck, and Liberal Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The first two polls put Oreck ahead by six percentage points, but the final poll had Wilson-Raybould at 35 percent, compared to 33 percent for Oreck and 28 percent for Broshko. Leadnow calls its results a “statistical tie”.
Oreck subsequently issued a statement saying that it did not surprise her that “the Conservative candidate is in trouble in this riding.”
In Vancouver South, Leadnow has reposted the results of a Dogwood Initiative poll that shows Liberal Harjit Sajjan with a 13-percentage-point lead over Conservative incumbent Wai Young. The New Democrat, Amandeep Nijjar, and Green candidate Elain Ng are ranked third and fourth, respectively. The votetogether.ca website also includes data on scores of other ridings, as well as the parties’ positions on various issues.
Biggar conceded that this campaign is merely a means to an end. Supporters of Leadnow have already voted in favour of campaigns for a stronger democracy, a fair economy, and a clean environment. But the difficulty, according to him, is that none of these goals can be achieved while the Conservatives remain in power.
Leadnow backed the only candidate in the last NDP leadership race, Nathan Cullen, to advocate for electoral cooperation with the Liberals. When the Liberals held their leadership race, Leadnow supporters coalesced behind Joyce Murray, who was the only one calling for cooperation with the NDP. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair and Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, however, have eschewed working together to beat Conservative candidates.
“Both parties made it clear that while they might strengthen their commitments to electoral reform, they weren’t going to do electoral cooperation,” Biggar said. “We then needed another strategy for ending the riding-by-riding vote-splitting.”