Getting Started With Voter Data

In order to prepare your database for your project, you need to merge the voter file into your computer system. (It isn’t as painful as it sounds.)

List Enhancement

Target: Membership

If you are targeting your members for turnout, you need some basic information added to your database. You need to know if the person is registered and which election districts (local, state and federal) the person resides in. This information – plus age, gender and voting history – is in the voter list. Some voter lists also include party registration and ethnicity.

The process of merging this type of information into your membership database is commonly called list enhancement. If your database is in good shape, your technical assistance people or a vendor can use the members’ names and addresses to match them with specific voter records and then merge the voter information into new fields in your member database. You can also match other consumer information with your member records. For example, some fundraisers link the member’s address to real estate records to learn the value of the member’s house – but that’s outside the scope of this training.

Target: Other Pools

You might have decided that you are going include other voters who are from particular precincts or have an interest in your organizing issues. If you do that, you’re going to have to build a separate table in your database to handle the voter records of people that are not members. The number of voters that you might have in a voter file, even a subset of a state, is substantial. The average number of registered voters in a federal congressional district is around 350,000. That’s a very large number of records for most of the hardware and software operating systems used by community organizing groups. In the targeting phase, you should have developed criteria to use to select a much smaller set of voters records. Use this to reduce the file to a more workable size.

Acquiring and Working with the Voter File

As we’ve said before, one of the great mysteries of voter education projects is just how and from whom to get those voter lists. Well, this section is going to expose answers to the mystery and give you a sense of how you might go about getting a voter list for your project.

Ultimately, the sources of all voter lists are government entities. You can either buy it directly from one of them or you can buy it from a third party. The former option is usually cheaper, but the latter is preferable because it can cut down on the amount of work and expertise required at your shop.

The source of the voter file is changing in some states as a result of a new law, the Help America Vote Act of 2002 (HAVA). According to the Election Assistance Commission’s web site,“HAVA requires that each state develop, maintain and administer a single, statewide list of registered voters, and the law directs EAC to issue voluntary guidance to assist states in their efforts to interpret and implement these lists. HAVA stipulates that a statewide voter registration list must be a single, uniform, centralized, interactive, computerized list that is centrally managed at the state level.”

You’ll have to check in your state. In some states they come from the secretary of state, but in many places they still come from county registrars.

There are a number of third parties that provide voter history records. It’s a good idea to ask your local peer organizations to see who is providing their voter data. It’s an even better idea to try to do a joint purchase of the records. If you are with a community organizing group that gets stuck in your search for voter data, Progressive Technology Project may be able to help. Submit a request for more information on our feedback form and we'll share whatever information we have about the field.

Technical Assistance

Tips on Merging Data

The good thing about HAVA is that each voter will have a unique (within the state) voter ID. This greatly simplifies the challenges of keeping the member record up to date with voter information. If you can get the proper voter list ID stored in each member’s record, you’ll have a path to follow when it comes time to upload the next election’s voting history for that member. But that won’t help you in the beginning.

So let’s say you’ve hired (or borrowed) a techie to merge the voter file with your database – chances are, you’re not home free just yet. While the computer is a wonderful tool, these match processes are no panacea. You’ll be very lucky to get a successful match of more than 85% of the voters in your member file.

Common problems encountered in a merge:

Maintaining the Data Structure

In an ideal world, you would always have your local voter file on your system. If you did, you could merge the voter history into your member records as you add new members, donors or other contacts between election cycles. You will benefit from the human doing the match, rather than strictly relying on an imperfect algorithm. Once the voter ID is linked to the member record, you’ve got a long-lasting link – at least until the voter moves out of state.

Click to hear from an organizer

Henry Serrano explains that to develop the capacity to reach their data-management goals, they had to go outside the organization

Henry Serrano: CVH went outside the organization to meet data-management goals