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Senior British Labour Party politician Jack Straw canvassing with local councillors in Blackburn

Canvassing is the systematic initiation of direct contact with individuals commonly used during political campaigns. Campaigners will knock on doors or make telephone calls to engage in a personalized contact with an individual. It is used by political parties and issue groups to identify supporters, persuade the undecided, add voters to the voters list through voter registration, and it is central to get out the vote operations. It is the core element of what political campaigns call the ground game or field.

Organized canvassing became a central tool of contested election campaigns in Britain, and has remained a core practice performed by thousands of volunteers each election there, and in many of the countries descended from its political system. It is less common in campaigns of Continental Europe or the democracies of East Asia.


A modern election canvass is conducted either by a candidate, volunteers, or by paid canvassers. The canvassers are given lists known as canvass sheets or in the UK as reading pads. These are a list of households to be contacted, generated from a voter database. Some campaigns today have replaced paper sheets with tablet or smartphone apps.[1]

The canvasser will attempt to reach each of the households on their list, and deliver a script containing questions and persuasive messaging provided by the campaign. Almost all election canvassing includes asking how a person plans to vote. Supporters will then be asked themselves to volunteer, or to take a lawn sign.[2] Those who are wavering or undecided may be given a message of persuasion. If foot canvassing, the canvasser will also distribute flyers.

Upon completing the canvass, the results will be entered into the voter database. This will update the campaign's list of voters, removing those who are moved and deceased and adding new residents who may have been found. The data on the questions will be used for further contact, a supporter may be added to a list for get out the vote or fundraising, while a hostile voter might be dropped from future contact.



The origin of the term is an older spelling of “canvas”, to sift by shaking in a sheet of canvas, hence to discuss thoroughly.[3]

An organized canvass can be seen as early as the elections of the Roman Republic. In those campaigns candidates would shake the hands of all eligible voters in the Forum. Whispering into the ear of some candidates would be a nomenclator, a slave who had been trained to memorize the names of all the voters, so that the candidate could greet them all by name.[4]

Modern canvassing traces back to the rise of contested elections in England. For the first centuries of the English Parliament elections were rarely contested. Losing an election was considered a dishonor to oneself, and to friends and family. Campaigning thus involved quiet sounding out of the small pool of voters. Only once this process had convinced a candidate that he had enough votes to win would he declare his interest in the seat.[5]

Beginning in the Elizabethan Era, and expanding during the conflicts under the Stuarts, elections began to be openly contested. Canvassing was a controversial strategy. In both 1604 and 1626 canvassing for votes was banned. It was seen as a violation to free elections, as votes would be won by persuasion rather than a voter making up his own mind.[6] Despite this, by the late 17th century, canvassing was standard practice in English elections. Rival campaigns would attempt a full canvass of all voters, which even in the largest districts would only be a few thousand people.

I got sixty eight promises in Oundle and its neighbourhood today, and only one refusal. Some doubtful, but most not at home, with who I left printed cards requesting their votes.

Lord Althorp describing his day of canvassing in Northamptonshire in the 1806 election, [7]

There were many reasons why candidates invested much time and money in canvassing. As in the previous tradition of sounding out supporters before announcing, many candidates would use the canvass to determine their level of support, and would drop out before election day if it proved insufficient. Part of the concern would be financial. Campaigning was expensive in an era where voters expected to be plied with food and drink. In this period the candidates had to cover the costs of the election itself. If candidates did not find enough votes during their canvass they would drop out before wasting more money on an unwinnable campaign.[8]

Building the list of voters was also important, as only some districts kept full poll books. Legal wrangling over who met the property requirements to vote was important in many campaigns, and canvassing was used to add supporters to the rolls, while investigating the claims of opponents. The growing list of supporters would also be essential to an election day operation. In early elections all voters had to travel to a central town, often some distance from their home, and polling could last several days. During this time voters would be away from their work and their fields. As an example of the challenges, one losing candidate had identified 639 supporters in Kent for the Short Parliament election of 1640, but only 174 voted, most going home after finding out the polling would take three days.[9]

Persuasion and corruption

A candidate would also make sure to knock on as many doors as possible to win over the voters. Speaking to as many voters as possible was seen as an essential tool to win the "wavering multitudes."[10]

William Hogarth's 1754 depiction of the sordid and disreputable job of canvassing for votes.

By the 18th century canvassing was standard practice, but this was also an era of gross electoral corruption, and canvassing was used to bribe and threaten voters,[11] as famously depicted in William Hogarth's Humours of an Election series of paintings. Most directly this would take the form of direct bribes to voters. This was only the practice in a minority of districts, but in some areas large bribes had become habitual. In areas without direct bribery, candidates were expected to provide food, drink, and banquets. These various costs added up to the equivalent of several million modern pounds for the priciest races, causing financial hardship for even wealthy candidates.[12]

In the first elections held in the United States, canvassing was rare. Most elections were uncontested, and even in races with multiple candidates it was considered improper for a candidate to campaign on his own behalf.[13] In the early nineteenth century as the party system developed, elections became more contested and voluntary associations developed to work on candidates' behalf. As in the United Kingdom canvassing became an important part of their operations, and they would attempt to visit each voter in a district.[13]

George Caleb Bingham's positive portrayal of a candidate canvassing in the United States in 1852

This system to soon became a venue for gross corruption. Machine politics developed in the large eastern cities. Elected officials would reward their supporters with patronage appointments if they won, and direct bribery was also common with one estimate that 20% of New York voters were compensated for their voters during Gilded Age elections.[13]

In the United Kingdom, the Reform Act of 1832 attacked corruption and expanded the franchise. This combined with the growing strength of the national parties transformed canvassing. There were no lists of who was eligible to vote under the new law, and it was up to the individual voter to register themselves. The parties launched mass canvasses with the goal of adding all of the party's supporters to the electoral roll. As an example, in Norwich the 1874 saw 3000 Liberal paid workers and 2000 Conservative engaged in voter registration.[14] The massive paid canvassing came to an end with the Corrupt and Illegal Practices Prevention Act 1883, which limited campaign spending and the armies of paid canvassers were replaced with smaller volunteer efforts. Laws were also changed in the United Kingdom to make voter registration almost automatic, removing the need for the parties to expend efforts on it.[15]

Voter identification and decline

As corruption faded, parties returned to using canvassing to win votes through persuasion and GOTV. This was especially true of the new socialist parties such as the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, and the CCF in Canada who had little money but enthusiastic volunteer bases who could be deployed to door steps.

The years after the Second World War saw a general decline in canvassing. Political scientists began to question the utility of traditional campaigns. The Michigan model of voter behaviour became the accepted wisdom. It argued that voters had deep-set partisan loyalties, and that changes in such loyalties take years to develop. A simple knock on the door will do nothing to change a voter's opinion. Parties thus switched their canvassing resources away from persuading voters, focusing only on identifying their supporters and making sure they voted.[14] The British Labour Party adopted the Reading System developed by Ian Mikardo to win the Reading constituency in 1945. It was based on concentrating exclusively on pro-Labour areas and boosting their turnout, while ignoring non-supporters.[16]

Even these approaches were found wanting. David Butler in his Nuffield Model of UK elections found that during the 1950s and 1960s, local campaigns had no effect on the results. With the rise of television, resources were shifted from the ground to mass market advertising, with canvassing seen as a relic of the past. Ivor Crewe argued that "constituency organizing counts for next to nothing in the television age."[14] One political scientist wrote there was a belief that canvassing was an "elaborate ritual bringing some sense of gratification to the participants, but making no difference to election results."[17]


An ALF-CIO canvasser in the 2008 American election

In the United States, canvassing reached is nadir during the 1996 election, with the lowest reported rates of political volunteering, and the lowest recorded voter turnout.[18] Political scientists began to reassess the effects of canvassing. In Britain new studies found that unlike in earlier decades, a strong field campaign was having an effect on the result. In the United States Alan S. Gerber and Donald Green launched a series of controlled experiments, and demonstrated that foot canvassing was one of the most effective tools available to boost voter turnout.[19]

The years since 2000 have seen a widespread revival of election canvassing. An intensive effort by the Al Gore campaign of 2000 was credited with gaining several points on election day in the 2000 election, enough to win the popular vote despite being down several points in the polls the day before. Subsequently the Republicans launched their 72 Hour Program of get out the vote efforts over the last three days of a campaign, and also found demonstrable proof that it gained them several points in key races.[20] The Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 were especially noted for dedicating resources to a field program.[21]

New technologies changed how canvassing was conducted. Expansive databases of the electorate, such as the Democrats' NGP VAN, pulled together canvassing data, consumer information, and demographic profiles to allow precise targetting of voters. No longer would campaigns knock on all the doors in a district, rather voters who would most be persuaded to support the candidate or come out to vote could be targeted. Large campaigns incorporated A/B testing into their canvassing, to further hone and improve its effectiveness.[21]

Canvassing around the world

Originating in the United Kingdom, canvassing is most widespread in those countries that have borrowed from the British political system. It is standard practice in elections in the United States, Canada,[22] Australia, and New Zealand.[23] In India, despite the million or more voters in many constituencies, parties have made the effort to have canvassers visit the door of each house in each village.[24]

Door-to-door canvassing has been little known in most other countries. It has been used in several Latin American countries, including Brazil and Chile.[24] After the highly publicized canvassing tactics of the Obama campaign, similar tactics have been tried in France[25] and Germany.[26]

In Scandinavia door-to-door canvassing was an accepted part of election campaigning in the first half of the 20th century, but has since faded. It still exists, but a political party knocking on someone's door is considered somewhat unseemly. More widespread has been organized workplace canvasses either by labour unions or by employers.[24]

Canvassing for votes is forbidden in Japan. This has been the case since the original General Election Law of 1925. The restrictions have been brought to the Supreme Court on several occasions, but have been upheld as constitutional.[27]


There has been a long history of studying the effectiveness of canvassing beginning with a 1927 study by Harold Foote Gosnell[28] Through the 1980s a series of both controlled and natural experiments created a consensus that canvassing had a small effect on turnout, and no observable persuasive effect on who to vote for.[29]

In 1999 Gerber and Green published their first paper presenting a rigorously controlled experiment that produced a substantial turnout boost from canvassing in a New Haven municipal election.[30] This study revived interest in the subject. Since then Gerber, Green, and other political scientists have conducted a program that verified those results, and tested what techniques are most effective. Foot canvassing is the most effective contact method, increasing turnout by about 7 percentage points, while phoning boosts it by 2.6 points. Other contact techniques such as direct mail, robocalls, and email have small to undetectable effects.[19] Other studies have found that canvassing can do more to boost turnout, and also win new votes at the door through persuasion.[31][32]

Example script

The following is an excerpt from a script used by the UK Labour Party in the buildup to a general election for telephone canvassing:

Hello, can I speak to (voter's name) please? Hello (voter's name) my name is (name). I'm calling on behalf of (MP/parliamentary spokesperson). I'm calling to find out your views on the Labour government's priorities. Which of the following do you think are the three most important priorities for the government? [Lists five policy areas – 'better schools', 'better hospitals', 'more jobs', 'less crime' and 'strong economy'] Let me tell you what Labour is doing in these areas and what the Tories would do if they were re-elected [refers to 'dividing lines' table where Conservative policies are compared unfavourably with Labour]. Now can I ask you which party you think you will vote for at the next general election?[33]

The script then divides into two sections based on whether the voter intends to support Labour or another party. The section for Labour supporters encourages the use of postal votes, asks whether the individual would consider displaying a poster in their window or deliver leaflets on their street and asks whether the individual would consider joining the party.[33] The section for non-Labour voters asks the following questions:[33] This sample script is also representative of elections in the United States, in which a volunteer might ask, "if the election for (congress, governor, president, etc.) were held today, would you vote for (Candidate A) or (Candidate B)?

  1. Which main political party do you identify with?
  2. There will be elections in (date), which party will you vote for at these elections?
  3. How did you vote in the last general election?
  4. Who would be your second choice?
  5. Do you vote at every election?

The script concludes by thanking the voter before ending the call.

Constitutionality of canvassing in the United States

Local governments in the United States have passed local laws to limit Americans’ ability to canvass. Many of these challenges escalated to the Supreme Court, which has ruled overwhelmingly on the side of the public’s right to canvass as protected by the First Amendment. For example, in Martin v. Struthers, Justice Hugo Black stated:

“Freedom to distribute information to every citizen wherever he desires to receive it is so clearly vital to the preservation of a free society that … it must be fully preserved. To require a censorship through license which makes impossible the free and unhampered distribution of pamphlets strikes at the very heart of the constitutional guarantees."[34]

In 2002, the Supreme Court reconfirmed its conviction that canvassing is protected by our First Amendment rights in Watchtower Society v. Village of Stratton. Justice John Paul Stevens stated:

"It is offensive, not only to the values protected by the First Amendment, but to the very notion of a free society that in the context of everyday public discourse a citizen must first inform the government of her desire to speak to her neighbors and then obtain a permit to do so."[35]

See also


  1. Haydn Watters. "New mobile election apps mean pressure's on for local campaigns" CBC Jun 13, 2015
  2. Michael McNamara. The Political Campaign Desk Reference: A Guide for Campaign Managers and Candidates Running for Elected Office Outskirts Press, 2008. pg. 123
  3.  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). [ "Canvass" ] Check |ws link in chapter= value (help). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Rachel Feig Vishnia (12 March 2012). Roman Elections in the Age of Cicero: Society, Government, and Voting. Routledge. p. 112. ISBN 978-1-136-47871-0.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Mark A. Kishlansky. Cambridge University Press, Sep 26, 1986 Cambridge University Press, Sep 26, 1986 pg. 35
  6. Derek Hirst. The Representative of the People?: Voters and Voting in England Under the Early Stuarts Cambridge University Press, Sep 15, 2005. pg. 115
  7. Peter Jupp. British and Irish Elections 1784-1881. David and Charles Ltd. 1973. pg. 143
  8. JSTOR 1841324
  9. Derek Hirst. The Representative of the People?: Voters and Voting in England Under the Early Stuarts Cambridge University Press, Sep 15, 2005. pg. 117
  10. Derek Hirst. The Representative of the People?: Voters and Voting in England Under the Early Stuarts Cambridge University Press, Sep 15, 2005. pg. 115
  11. Dennis Kavanagh (1970). Constituency electioneering in Britain. Longmans.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. J.H. Plumb. The growth of political stability in England: 1675-1725. London: Macmillan, 1967.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Michael Schudson (1 January 2011). The Good Citizen: A History of American CIVIC Life. Free Press. ISBN 978-1-4516-3162-3.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 David Denver; Gordon Hands (23 October 2013). Modern Constituency Electioneering: Local Campaigning in the 1992 General Election. Routledge. ISBN 978-1-135-22162-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. David Denver. "Canvassing". International Encyclopedia of Elections. CQ Press, Feb 2, 2000
  16. Jon Lawrence. Electing Our Masters : The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair. OUP Oxford, Mar 26, 2009 pg. 146
  17. David Denver. "Canvassing". International Encyclopedia of Elections. CQ Press, Feb 2, 2000
  18. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (5 February 2012). Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-15305-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  19. 19.0 19.1 Donald P. Green; Alan S. Gerber (30 September 2015). Get Out the Vote: How to Increase Voter Turnout. Brookings Institution Press. ISBN 978-0-8157-2569-5.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (5 February 2012). Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-15305-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. 21.0 21.1 Sasha Issenberg (2012). The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns. Crown. ISBN 978-0-307-95479-4.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  22. Alex Marland; Thierry Giasson; Jennifer Lees-Marshment (15 February 2012). Political Marketing in Canada. UBC Press. p. 77. ISBN 978-0-7748-2231-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. R. G. Mulgan; Peter Aimer (2004). Politics in New Zealand. Auckland University Press. p. 266. ISBN 978-1-86940-318-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 David Butler; Austin Ranney (1992). Electioneering: A Comparative Study of Continuity and Change. Clarendon Press. ISBN 978-0-19-827375-2.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  25. "In France, Using Lessons From Obama Campaign." New York Times. April 21, 2012
  26. "Washington Wisdom: SPD Adopts Obama's Door-to-Door Campaign." Spiegel Online. September 13, 2013
  27. . JSTOR 1191847. Cite journal requires |journal= (help); Missing or empty |title= (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. Gosnell, Harold F.1927. Getting-Out-The-Vote: An Experiment in the Stimulation of Voting. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  29. Jerome H. Black. "Revisiting the Effects of Canvassing on Voting Behaviour." Canadian Journal of Political Science Vol. 17, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 351-374
  30. Alan S. Gerber and Donald P. Green. "Does Canvassing Increase Voter Turnout? A Field Experiment" Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Vol. 96, No. 19 (Sep. 14, 1999), pp. 10939-10942
  31. What Persuades Voters? A Field Experiment on Political Campaigning, October 2012
  32. Torun Dewan, Macartan Humphreys and Daniel Rubenson. THE ELEMENTS OF POLITICAL PERSUASION: CONTENT, CHARISMA AND CUE The Economic Journal, 124 (February 2-13)
  33. 33.0 33.1 33.2 Telephone canvassing script, Labour Party, as published in How to Win an Election, Paul Richards, p.90-91
  34. "MARTIN v. STRUTHERS, 319 U.S. 141 (1943), 319 U.S. 141, MARTIN v. CITY OF STRUTHERS, OHIO. No. 238. Argued March 11, 1943. Decided May 3, 1943". FindLaw. Retrieved 2015-01-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. "WATCHTOWER BIBLE & TRACT SOCIETY OF NEW YORK, INC., et al. v. VILLAGE OF STRATTON et al. certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the sixth circuit. No. 00-1737. Argued February 26, 2002--Decided June 17, 2002". FindLaw. Retrieved 2015-01-03.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>