The Voter File

The States are creeping towards a uniform and centralized (electronic!) voter database – but don’t hold your breath. We’re still stuck using voter files from private vendors that contain a mishmash of voter data.

The Help America Vote Act of 2002 declared that by January 1, 2004 (or January 1, 2006, if a state received an extension, as forty did) every state must have in place:

“[a] single, uniform, official, centralized, interactive computerized statewide voter registration list defined at the state level that contains the name and registration information of every legally registered voter in the state and assigns a unique identified to every legally registered voter in the state.”

It was about time. The paper lists were incredibly cumbersome and required hours of data entry before organizers could even begin to use the information in a sophisticated manner. “It’s gotten better over the years,” Bineshi Albert says, “It didn’t use to always be on a disk and we used to have a very difficult time getting them to give it to us in electronic form. But in the last two years it’s been in electronic form.”

What you can expect from the voter file

Although all fifty states have met the requirements of the Act, the ways they’ve done so vary. Thirty-eight states are maintaining “top down” databases, where the registration lists are updated on a statewide level, while the rest are either “bottom up,” where localities send new or updated registration information to the state, a hybrid of the two, or still undecided on just how they’re managing their centralized voter file. Then there’s North Dakota, where there is no voter registration. More than half the states decided to contract the task of creating the database out to a private company – there are at least a dozen performing the service – and the rest are doing it in-house. The point is that the voter file is far from consistent across states – and even within a state, depending on the vendor.

Ok, so what’s in the voter file? Look over the wording of the Help America Vote Act – notice that in addition to a voter’s name and ID number the database is required to list their “registration information.” You’d be forgiven to wonder, “What exactly is that?” As the vague phrasing would suggest, it means different things to different states. The only information you can count on finding in the “raw voter file” is a voter’s address, but it may also include a phone number.

Enhanced versions contain additional information about voters which may include any (or all) of the following: party affiliation, date of birth, race, religion, labor affiliation and income.

Bear in mind that the voter file isn’t free and in most cases, you’ll pay more for more information. Bineshi remembers thinking, “We have to pay that much for this?”  But, she adds, “We’ve been pretty creative about how we’ve tried to acquire it. In the past that’s what we’ve done is partner with other ally organizations to share the cost of the list, even though we had different purposes of what were going to use it for.”

Working with the voter file

So what do you do with the voter file once you’ve got it? As Anthony Thigpenn explains, the database of registered voters can really be put to use when it’s cross-referenced with your membership database. Using a database program, you can analyze and compare the pools to learn who among your members is a registered voter and over time, evaluate the ongoing project’s impact on the voting behavior of your membership. You’ll learn how to do this in the Data section.

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Anthony Thigpenn talks about the differences between the voter database and membership database Anthony Thigpenn: the voter database is a “very special animal.”