The Voter Engagement Data Life Cycle

Voter engagement projects produce a lot of information. The challenge for your organization is to be able to collect, store and retrieve that information when you need it most.

In the weeks before Election Day, you’ll update voters’ names, addresses, phone numbers and issue interest – all information that could be useful when you launch your next policy campaign, for instance. But in order to build your organization, you’ll need to track your contacts.
Data Life CycleThere is a life cycle to data collected in election work. You start with your member list, bring in updates from external voter lists, your volunteers, your door-knocking and phone-banking activities and, after the election, pull the voter list again to check who turned out. And after it’s over, with a good database, you can pull out a list of those people who are interested in being leaders in your organization and your community.

Selecting a Set

The first phase of the data life cycle, as you can see in the diagram, is to acquire inputs of information. The data that you work with depends on the targeting decisions made during the campaign planning phase of your campaign. If your strategy is to start with registering and turning out your own organization’s members, you’ll be using your organization’s database as the starting point. To determine who’s already registered, you’ll obtain a voter file that gets matched against your membership list. This process of checking a member list against a voter list and updating the member list to show voting status and history is commonly called list enhancement. The output of Phase One, the voter history in the enhanced member records, will be used by volunteers during the voter education campaign. 
If you are targeting an area where none of your members live, you’ll be using the voter file alone to produce lists. Regardless of whether you’re targeting neighborhoods that include your members (or members of organizations in your coalition) or not, you need to know the precinct boundaries of the target communities. You may have to get this information from different sources: the voter file gives it for registered voters, while geocoding your database and matching it to a geocoded precinct shapefile will allow you to calculate it for others. Once you know the precincts you are interested in, you can select a set of members and voters that you will work with for the duration of the campaign.

Producing Lists

Phase Two is the heart of the project and represents the cycle of list production, canvassing, updating the database and producing new lists, repeating the process until you’ve reached your targeting goals. Volunteers coming in for regular walk mobilizations and phone-banks will be trained in the message, what information to collect and, critical for our interests in the data life cycle, how to record it so that it can be put back into the database (we covered this in Fieldwork Materials Training).You’ll produce lists from your precinct target list and your merged voter/member data. Alternatively, you can put the voter walk lists into PDAs for your volunteers. In either case, these lists are more than just guides for your walkers and callers – they are “data entry forms” to be filled out with corrected information and, most importantly, the contact’s issue interest or survey responses. We’ll go into the details of different types of list production, as well as data entry, in Managing Field Data.

Entering Results

Once the data is collected, it isn’t very useful until it gets into the computer database. Many campaigns falter at this stage. The paper builds up as the demands of field work take priority over data entry. There are ways to manage the volume of data entry. The data has to be entered by someone but it doesn’t need to be typed in, at least not all of it. Barcode readers can be used to scan in the recorded answers to the opinion survey that the volunteers asked in the canvass. If you used PDAs the answers can be updated by linking them back into the computer system. Volunteers and staff with keyboard skills are still important though as some data has to be keyed in – new contacts or address changes, for example. However, once the data is into the system, the data can be analyzed and used during the campaign to adjust the field campaign based on what the canvassers are learning.

Saving the History of Your Work

A few months after the election, the registrars will update the voter list with new voters and their most recent voting history. In Phase Three of the life cycle you’ll get the updated voter list and match it to the database, an excellent opportunity to analyze the effectiveness of the campaign. For example, simply checking which voters turned out as promised can give an insight both into their behavior, the degree to which people trust the organization, and the value of certain contact methods over others. There’s no need to wait for the voter information to be mining your voter contact data, though. You can merge it back into your membership database so that it can give a complete picture of the members’ activity in the project . Who volunteered? What issues are important to them? Were they interested in the organization itself? These are the type of questions that can be answered from a decent voter contact database. Few organizations are able to fully complete this part of the data cycle, at least not yet. With each successive election cycle, your organization can build up its capacity to integrate the data into its own database.

The Life Cycle at Work

As Robby Rodriguez remarks, effective data management – the greatest measure of which may be simply avoiding a data-entry bottleneck – reaps rewards throughout the project. SWOP uses their database to fine-tune voter engagement. By letting canvassers know what a voter has said to representatives of the project in the past, they can make the most of the interaction. After the election, SWOP organizers use the database and new voter file to analyze and compare the efficacy of different contact methods.
The data life cycle is sometimes modified to fit the needs of organizations, but the goals and basic processes remain the same. Community Voices Heard, Henry Serrano explains, made the decision to geographically target certain districts. They received assistance from the Low Income Networking and Communications (LINC) Project to create walk lists from the massive data set that is the New York City voter list. The area where they were working was very high-density, so they took another step and used a program called Macros to produce walk lists by apartment building. As door-knockers and phone-bankers worked their way down the voter lists, and the data they collected was entered into the database, the walk lists got shorter, until organizers felt they had achieved their targeting goals for that district.

Click to hear from an organizer

Anthony Thigpenn describes SCOPE's planning phases Anthony Thigpenn: Building a database over multiple election cycles

Henry Serrano describes the process of producing walk lists using information in the voter file Henry Serrano: from voter file to walk list

Bineshi Albert describes the challenge of identifying Native American voters in Albuquerque – and the importance of building a database of the community Bineshi Albert: Use the time between elections to rebuild the database