Data Elements: The Hidden Secrets of Addresses

If you haven’t gotten the hint thus far, let’s say it loud and clear – to do an integrated voter engagement project, your organization needs to have its own database. 

Generally, community organizations track their members, donors and supporters. Some organizations also track press contacts and vendors. It’s beyond the scope of the Voter TechKit to explain all the intricacies of database management. This section explains some of the crucial items to track if you wish to match your database against a voter list and the best practices for doing so.

What to Save in your Database

The database needs to track the following bits of information about each person (where applicable):

Name

If you track the name components separately, that is, first name and last name in different fields, you will find it easier to match names to the voter list.Many organizations have a practice that can wreak havoc with the name matching process: the tendency to put more than one person into the name field (i. e., first name: Bill and Melinda, last name: Gates). If your database does this, you’ll have to find a way to separate the name records (Bill Gates and Melinda Gates) so that each person in the household can be individually identified.

Street Address

You have to track the street address of each person if you want to match them against the voter record. We normally think of a street address as a pretty straightforward thing, consisting of a number and the street. But there is more to it than that – a lot more. The street address can be broken up into its component parts. Let’s deconstruct this address: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This address has a number (the post office calls this the primary address number), street name and street name suffix.

Primary Address
Number

Street Name

Suffix

1600

Pennsylvania

Avenue

The address may also include an apartment number and directional information (North, South, East and West) that can appear before or after the street name. In order to track an address like 1800 Canal Street North, Apartment 2, you’ll need two more fields:

Primary Address
Number

Street Name

Suffix Direction

Apartment

1800

Canal

Street North

2

Your database should be set up so that certain fields are required (number, street name and suffix), while others are optional (direction and apartment).

We haven’t covered all the parts of an address. The U.S. Post Office’s Publication 28 (with the endearing name of “Postal Addressing Standards”) lists a potential total of seven components in the street address. Most of the components have a limited number of postally-acceptable abbreviations, so it’s a good idea to read Publication 28 and download our crib sheet available here

There are several important reasons to think about addresses as the sum of component parts.For one, if you do any mailings, the Post Office will do a better job of getting your mail delivered on time if you’ve entered the address correctly. If you do a bulk mailing, you’ll be able to get greater discounts if your addresses can be properly sorted and grouped.More importantly, you will have a better chance of matching the home address of your members with the voter file if you can parse the address into its seperate fields.Some membership databases collect the addresses that way from the get-go, others have to be run through some software to pull the addresses apart, which can reveal a number of data entry problems that must be fixed before you can do your voter list match.And a “heads up”: the raw voter files that you may get from a Secretary of State or County Registrar don’t always comply with the Post Office’s postal address standards – but that’s a different subject.

City, State and Zip

The city, state and zip code data elements should always be collected in separate fields. The city name should comply with whatever name your local voting file uses for the location, so avoid abbreviations. The state abbreviation should comply with the Post Office’s list – if not, you’ll have trouble getting your mail delivered. One final potential snag: if you’ve updated your zip fields to be zip plus 4, in order to have a successful match, you may need to separate the five digit zip code from the nine digit zip if your voter file does not include the full nine digits for all addresses.