For the past three weeks, hundreds of volunteers across Ontario have been picking up the phone and calling potential voters in a handful of key ridings with one clear message: if you don’t support Doug Ford, get out and vote for someone else.

Their actions — in more than 150 community-based phone banks that likely made some 100,000 calls leading up to the June 7 election— are part of Leadnow’s #neverFord campaign, the advocacy group’s attempt to prevent a Progressive Conservative government from leading Canada’s most populous province.

Most of @leadnowca's efforts went into empowering volunteers to run the phone banks in churches and community centres and living rooms across Toronto, in Markham, Guelph, Kitchener and elsewhere in the province

“We are opposed to what we can tell that the PCs are standing against and for under Ford,” said Brittany Smith, a senior campaigner with the group. “Which is engineering massive tax cuts for big corporations and the rich while duping voters into thinking that they’ll stand up for the little guy, entrenching an agenda of privatization and deep public service cuts and also emboldening the far-right base that will make especially minority communities far less safe.”

Leadnow describes itself as an independent advocacy organization that is attempting to achieve progress through democracy. It was extremely active in key ridings in the 2015 federal election as its volunteers worked to defeat the former Harper government.

In Ontario, it's running a partially non-partisan campaign. The group’s members have directed volunteers not to endorse any other candidate. So volunteers don’t seek to persuade. They simply follow a short script encouraging people to vote. If they come across a Conservative voter, they thank them for their time and hang up. Soon after a call ends a bot asks them how it went. This is duly noted, and that phone number is tossed from the list.

On the eve of election day, the group ran one of its last phone banks of the campaign on the lawn outside Queen’s Park.

They raised a blimp said to have Rolling Stones lineage attached to a banner exhorting Ontarians to vote on June 7. This was followed by a group photo with the legislative building in the background.

Then they headed back to their meeting point on the grass for a briefing.

Tim Ellis, a Leadnow campaigner, explained the recent loosening of voter identification rules and offered some tips about how to engage people on the phone. “The key is to get them thinking about a plan to vote,” he said, by asking them what time they’re going to vote, or how they usually get to their polling place, for example. It doesn’t matter so much what they say, he explained, as long as they’re planning to vote.

Leadnow campaigner Tim Ellis explains the group's strategy to volunteers and takes questions at a phone bank outside Queen's Park in Toronto on June 6, 2018. Photo by Alastair Sharp

Then he told the assembled volunteers that the script had changed for the evening's phone calls. They no longer needed to probe to find out voter intention, the list that’s feeding them live calls now consists of only confirmed anti-Ford voters.

Just make sure they show up, he said. Leaving voice messages is now recommended, he added.

And then the group of roughly 20 volunteers spread out across the lawn just north of College and University and started calling into Leadnow’s dialer and centralized hub, which directs their efforts to telephone number lists assigned to specific ridings.

A sample of the script volunteers use to guide their conversations with voters at a Leadnow phone bank. Photo by Alastair Sharp

Focus on Doug Ford's and Andrew Lawton's ridings

Leadnow has focused much of its efforts on targeting voters in the Etobicoke North riding where Doug Ford hopes to take incumbent Liberal MPP Shafiq Qaadri’s seat and the London West riding where PC candidate Andrew Lawton is challenging NDP incumbent Peggy Sattler.

Lawton, a former contributor to Ezra Levant’s far-right Rebel Media site, has been criticized for past comments seen as misogynistic, racist and homophobic, which he has said were related to his struggle with mental illness.

The other ridings Leadnow’s volunteers have been calling into include Sarnia-Lambton, Chatham-Kent-Leamington, Eglinton-Lawrence and Kitchener Centre.

“Those two, Etobicoke West and London West, really are where the math tells us we can beat them and our values tell us we really want to draw the line against the politics that they stand for,” said Smith from Leadnow, which has nine paid staff and claims more than 100,000 members in Ontario and more than 500,000 across Canada.

The group paid for political ads in those ridings up to the $4,000 per riding list for authorized third party, she said. The group’s undisclosed budget for the campaign was crowdfunded by around 3,200 people who each contributed between $5 and $100, according to Smith.

But most of its efforts went into empowering volunteers to run the phone banks, using software that makes it easy for calls to be made and their outcomes recorded in churches and community centres and living rooms across Toronto, in Markham, Guelph, Kitchener, Belleville and elsewhere across the province.

Volunteer Jeannie Baxter makes a call to encourage anti-Ford voters to cast their ballot on election day at a Leadnow phone bank outside Queen's Park on June 6, 2018. Photograph by Alastair Sharp

The strategy is based on math. With evidence suggesting that progressive voters are less likely to vote than conservatives, Leadnow is betting that increasing the number of voters, especially in battleground ridings, decreases Ford’s chance at becoming the province’s next premier. The more volunteers, the more calls can be made, the better the chances, they calculate.

“No matter where you live, you’ll be a part of a people-powered phone blitz calling progressive voters in the tightest races to make sure they vote,” the group says on its website. “If enough of us make calls, we can boost voter turnout enough to tip the scales of local races and deny local PCs their seats.”

It's a shift in strategy from 2015, when Leadnow got more than 90,000 supporters in 29 swing Conservative ridings to pledge to vote together for local candidates - 16 Liberals and 13 from the NDP - best placed to win and bring down the Harper government.

They had less time to prepare this time around. While Leadnow took two years to build the strategic voting campaign it ran to help defeat Harper, the group has been planning the #neverFord campaign since late March, just weeks after the former city councillor won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party with a populist campaign he has brought with him into the general race.

“This strategy of specifically phone banking to boost turn out of voters who aren’t planning to vote PC is the best bang for our buck in the time we had,” Smith said.

Volunteer Doug Lash has hosted four phone banks in several spots along College St that he estimates more than 100 people attended in total. He said he liked the decision to stay neutral on who Ford’s critics should vote for.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t like Doug Ford and the issue is, in my opinion reasonable people can differ, and some people will support the NDP or Liberals or Green Party,” he said.

Still, he admitted to being concerned. “The polls are close, we don’t know how much it’s going to work.”

Don't vote, can't complain

Logan McIntosh is Leadnow’s campaigns director. She cut her teeth in the group’s anti-Harper strategic voting push of 2015. She had grown up in Vancouver and moved to Edmonton to study politics, where a friend “dragged me to a meeting” at which she first found out about the environmental and social damage of the oilsands project, Canada’s effort to extract a dense and slow-pouring oil known as crude bitumen from sand and rock beneath the boreal forest in northern Alberta.

“The numbers that matter to me are the number of volunteers that we’ve been able to mobilize in the last three weeks,” she said.

That number is around 900, the group estimates.

She said she has seen a lot of new people come into the fold in this anti-Ford fight, which has galvanized opposition from those fearful of his lack of policy detail and what his promised cuts to government spending will cost.

“The beauty of these moments is we invest in leadership capacity and then these people continue to organize in many different ways,” she said. “There are tons of people who are ready to get to work and want to actually be a part of something that’s making a difference.”

Take Danny Harvey, a professor in the geography department at University of Toronto, who cheerfully recounted to me the tally of how many respondents had either already voted or hung up on him, he had to leave a voice message for, or had engaged him in a “meaningful” conversation, which meant an acknowledgement of anti-Ford views and a plan to vote. He got 17 of these out of 57 calls.

“Of course I plan to vote,” he recalled one man telling him. “If you don’t vote you can’t complain.”

Take Claire Harvie, an artist and photographer who heard about the campaign a week ago and reaching out to voters for the first time on Tuesday night and came back on Wednesday night because she didn’t want to regret not doing more.

Take Jeannie Baxter, who manages an art printing store and describes herself as “politically active” but had never before gone beyond signing a petition or donating to a cause. The Cabbagetown resident said she has found herself in several strangers’ homes and churches and twice here outside Queen’s Park in the last three weeks, calling people and asking them to vote. Asked what motivated her to step up her political involvement, she said: “Doug Ford. He’s a maniac. We don’t need a Trump North.”

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