Flexibility and smart analytics are critical to electoral canvass efficiency

electoral canvass
© Tomas1111

William Quinton, Head of Elections, Idox, ponders what the Japanese relay team can teach us about harnessing technology to optimise the annual electoral canvass

“I am a firm believer in the people. If given the truth, they can be depended upon to meet any national crisis.” So wrote Abraham Lincoln, perhaps one of the best-known torch bearers for democracy.

It is democracy on which nations depend – to shape their future, hold those tasked with leadership to account and ensure equality for their people. While the notion of democracy is simple, the implementation of it and the responsibility to provide every eligible citizen with a voice at election time, can be – as for anything so precious and important – a complicated process.

In the UK, the annual electoral canvass is a huge and highly logistical undertaking for every local authority (or Scottish valuation joint board). It is about achieving register completeness and accuracy, to ensure every citizen, on every street in every borough, can have their vote at election time (especially should there be a snap election).

Year after year, the most crucial of all matching processes must ensure every eligible voter is not left behind. Failing to capture newly qualified voters, such as those who have moved house or qualified for citizenship, means they are at risk of losing the fundamental civil right to hold the nation’s leaders to account.

In a country with a steadily growing voting population (47.6 million parliamentary electoral registrations at last count), the undertaking is not straightforward; it can be time-consuming and complex. After all, the population moves rather like a current – people moving from and to different areas – particularly the 2.5 million strong university student population. Add to this the consequences of COVID-19; the pandemic will undoubtedly have had an impact on population movement – with people relocating from cities to outer areas.

Therefore, it is easy to conclude that without correct planning and the ability to flex an electoral canvass strategy, in line with yearly population movement and change, that this process can become costly to local authorities who are under growing financial pressure as a result of funding cuts and pandemic expenditure.

Flexing for smarter precision

Flexibility is a vital component here and many local authorities are a victim of their own process when it comes to how they gather data each year. Given the stringent legislation, and consequential step-by-step guidance from the Electoral Commission (which usually means a letter must be sent to a household, followed by a call and then a visit), most simply follow this guidance methodically, and expend countless human hours in the process.

It does not, however, need to be this way, thanks to the power of data-driven technology. Given the yearly frequency of the electoral canvass, local authorities sit on hoards of citizen data. Yet many have not been able to actually analyse and harness this information to see how the trends can streamline the way data is gathered and matched. Doing this would allow them to make strategic choices based on in-depth analysis, in order to save human effort and reduce costs in the process.

To expand on this point, we can examine the latest English Housing Survey Headline Report. In the year 2019-20, 1.8 million households moved. Of these, the greatest number of moves occurred within (in or out of) the private rented sector – 703,000 in total. In fact, there were 131,000 totally new rental households. Digging further into this report is recommended and a truly fascinating societal analysis. It also provides strong evidence for a more precise canvassing operation. Why? Well, it shows just how complex the movement of people in the UK is and demonstrates the very human traits of moving that can never be simply boxed into different categories, given life itself takes many twists and turns.

Many households will always be better at filling in their details than others, which leads to another important aspect of how technology can make the process smarter by learning from yearly trends. Not only that, but technology also allows an immediate response to current learning. For example, if the email channel used to contact voters by a local authority is working particularly well, then why not use it more widely? If the telephone canvass isn’t so responsive this year, then councils might switch the households they’d planned to telephone to a different contact approach.

Confirming the details of these different groups of people, the ‘constant-movers’ to the ‘stay-putters’, the ‘diligent-form-fillers’ to the ‘never-open-an-envelopers’ in the same way, can eat into efficiency. It is akin to training every member of a sports team in the same way, which would be unbeneficial to the success of that team. Whether it is football, where the goalkeeper will need a different approach from that of the strikers, or in rugby where forwards will need different weight training and nutrition from their back-line counterparts, or cricket where batters and bowlers need different practice for the same match. Instead, focusing on a tailored approach, which will get a better result for that player while simultaneously delivering success for the whole team, is just how data can be used by local authorities when it comes to the annual canvass.

Learning from the science of sport

To paint this picture more clearly, one can think of the 4x100m men’s final at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Japan – a team where every single runner had an individual time of over 10 seconds – claimed silver, beating the much-feted Americans.

They achieved it by challenging the status quo of the handover, learning from eons of footage and biomechanical data, smart thinking, and practice. Their coach discovered it was faster to pass the baton in the middle of the changeover zone and also introduced an underhanded exchange with the front runner’s elbow raised higher than waist level.

On the surface, this seems simple – but it was the years that went into designing and learning this process and making the call to be flexible away from what had always been done, but within the rules, that made the difference. The same concept can be harnessed for the role technology can play (only with much quicker analysis) within the annual canvass to get councils to the most efficient route to outcome (impacting the performance of the system such as getting information into the national data matching process to be validified and confirmed).

Having the ability to flex based on learnings and experience naturally speeds things up – be that identifying addresses that always respond and removing human resource from being assigned to following up with them unless absolutely needed later down the line.

Despite electoral administers now having the chance to use new and innovative contact approaches since the annual canvass reform in 2020, many local authorities are sticking with the old tried and tested, but expensive and potentially less effective, approaches. While this is understandable – and helps navigate the enormous anxieties that come with collecting and ultimately executing elections based on such data – the very comfort they rely on could be burning through treasured financial resource and time.

This is imperative to time-saving and reduction in cost as a result. The reason? Because a more flexible system that operates from learning and with insight into the quickest route to outcome, but still operates within legislative guidelines, means that following pre-defined steps simply for the sake of it can be eradicated.

Abraham Lincoln was a fine athlete, as well as a visionary and champion of democracy, and would no doubt have approved of the tactic of the Japanese relay team (if not the fact they beat the USA!). He also was fully aware of the perils of complexity that went into ensuring every person had the opportunity to use their voice to shape the future. If he were alive today, one can assume he would be a big advocate of smart technology that enables and harnesses the democratic process in the most efficient way possible.


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