Canvass: To conduct a public-opinion survey; to solicit votes or opinions; to scrutinize; to debate or discuss.
In this U.S. election season – and in the Philippines’, I’ve discovered – canvass makes frequent appearances in media reports. From the spelling, you’d infer that it’s related to canvas, the sturdy woven fabric used for making sails, clothing, and surfaces for painting. And you’d be correct. But what’s the connection?
I’ve been thinking about canvass because I’ve (finally) been reading Jane Austen’s Emma, which was published in 1815 and which contains this line in Chapter 8:
“We think so differently on this point, Mr. Knightley, that there can be no use in canvassing it. We shall only be making each other more angry.”
Emma’s canvassing has one of the earliest meanings, “debating or discussing,” which the OED tracks back to 1530. But a slightly earlier, now-obsolete meaning reveals the cloth connection: “to toss in a canvas sheet, etc., as a sport or punishment.” (Sport or punishment? Those crazy Renaissancers!) Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, suggested that the debate sense came from French canavasser, to beat hemp, “which being a very laborious employment, it is used to signify, to search diligently into.”* But the OED notes that “no clear example of the verb in the literal sense of ‘sift or winnow’ has occurred.” The sense of solicit the constituency – to canvass for votes – did not appear until the mid-19th century.
Canvass today has two distinct meanings, both related to electioneering. One meaning, “thorough review” or “scrutiny,” is used in this headline from the WBAL-TV website.
“More provisional ballots found in Baltimore primary election canvass.” (May 19, 2016)
A Washington Post article from 2010 explains this canvass:
The canvass is a legal process in which local officials literally reconstruct the results of the election one voting machine and one precinct at a time, to ensure that all votes validly cast in the election are counted fairly and accurately.
This canvass has been used in the U.S. since at least the 1870s. A speech in the U.S. Senate in 1873 referred to “what they called the canvass of the votes in the Legislature.”
The other canvass – soliciting votes by meeting constituents in person, often in door-to-door campaigning by a candidate, campaign volunteers, or paid canvassers – also appears in election coverage. Here’s a snippet from a Daily Kos article about the Democratic challenger in a Kansas Congressional race:
Castilla’s aggressive online approach has included direct district outreach through canvass, an active schedule of talking to voters, weekly video updates, campaign status reports and efforts to use Bernie [Sanders] supporters to build precincts and infrastructure needed to put high school teacher who believes in them into office.
And here’s the lede of a 2010 NPR story about high-tech canvassing:
Canvassing has long been a part of the political process. But now, new social networking technologies are changing how people go door-knocking. Mobile apps with integrated voter registration rolls make it possible to collect and react to voter sentiment instantly. And a new Facebook tool enables volunteers to evangelize for their candidates like never before.
Canvassing isn’t restricted to the U.S. This cartoon appears in today’s (May 23) Philippine Star, in an editorial headlined “A Speedy Canvass” – i.e., a review of votes cast:
And election workers in Afghanistan, working under the auspices of Washington, DC-based National Democratic Institute (whose chair is former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright), are canvassing – soliciting votes – with mobile phones.
* This is probably a good time to remind you that canvas is a close cousin of cannabis (“hemp”).