Debut of Campaigns & Elections column.

Campaigns and Elections Two months after being named as Contributing Technology Editors to Campaigns & Elections Magazine, the first issue with columns by Chad Dotson and me appeared in my mailbox yesterday. It’s the May issue (making our debut one month later than planned), with Chad and my columns appearing side-by-side from pages 40-41. We even warrant a mention in the editor’s note at the beginning of the issue:

[W]e’re also introducing a section devoted entirely to following the technology developments in the industry. Tech Bytes features updates from the campaign trail as well as two columns from prominent bloggers Waldo Jaquith and Chad Dotson. As blogs become more involved in the political process we wanted to ensure they were involved in tracking campaigns and technology. To that end, Jaquith and Dotson write on the various uses of technology their parties are employing. This month the two spar on voter lists and how the parties are using voter data to make extensive databases.

Bloggers ’round the nation just read that paragraph twice. “Prominent…Waldo…who?”

Our first pair of columns is on the list management software employed by our respective parties, the RNC’s “Voter Vault” and the DNC’s…uh…nothing. I spent a few days communicating with volunteers and employees of campaigns and state parties across the country, and the theme was that, quite simply, there’s nothing being done by the DNC to manage lists or even unify tracking of voters. But when I talked to a representative for the DNC I was told that their list-management project was major priority for the party, a result of working closely with state parties throughout the nation. I checked with several state parties. They had never heard of such a thing.

You’ll need to pick up the magazine in order to read the columns, though we’ll be able to blog our columns 60 days from now.

And…er…if anybody’s got any ideas for columns? I’m all ears. Writin’ columns is hard work.

05/18 Update: I conflated two people in this blog entry (though not in the column), which made for a rather baffling narrative that made the DNC look dumb. In fact, I’m the one who should look dumb—the mistake was mine. I’ve fixed it now. My apologies.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »

13 replies on “Debut of Campaigns & Elections column.”

  1. I think you are a little confused. The Dem systems are far more federalized. We don’t have a single national database at present. But that doesn’t mean that there are no lists comparable to Voter Vault. Every state party owns a Voter File that is basically exactly the same thing. The only difference is that it’s often a different system state to state. One of the reasons Kaine trounced is that so much great work was done on the state voter file this year (unfortunately, all the money and focus was and sort of had to be on Kaine, so promoting and tracking Byrne and Deeds kind of got left behind). The dem volunteer software is not as there and consistent, but it does exist, and it simply interfaces with the voter file. Sure, Voter Vault combines the two, but in terms of technology, whether they fall under the same program name or show up as two different applications is a pretty trivial difference.

    Virginia Republicans have also been very stupid about Voter Vault, handing almost anyone a password to their systems and loudly announcing their plans to anyone who claimed to be a Republican. The Democrats were far far more secretive about their strategies.

    Your problem is that you talked to the DNC. Unlike the Republican Party, the DNC is far far less powerful and centralized. That’s in part because of the money structure. Dems often pay dues UP the chain, so that higher organizations are beholden to those below. Republicans often work the other way around: showering money down the chain, so that higher orgs have leverage over the locals. While the DNC is trying to centralize more, whether or not this is actually a worthwhile thing is a matter of some debate.

    The problem is that many state Dem parties are disasters: incompentance rises to the top. But some are really good. And there’s no guarantee that the DNC knows any better.

  2. I think you are a little confused. The Dem systems are far more federalized. We don’t have a single national database at present.

    It’s not that I’m not confused — it’s that the thesis of the pair of columns was to explore the national list management efforts on the part of the DNC and the RNC. I talked to three state parties about their own in-state list management work and about other states’ work, and some of them are doing a great job, including Virginia. But all are frustrated by the total lack of involvement on the part of a DNC. If a voter moves across the Potomac, it doesn’t matter if Virginia has a lifetime of voter data about them—Maryland has to start from scratch. So when Democrats run for president, they have to go begging from state to state, buying lists from each state party and attempting to take 50 different formats and stick them into a single database. It’s crazy.

    But, again, this is in the column. We may have to wait 60 days to have a discussion about it. :)

  3. When I worked on a delegate’s campaign last year I was very impressed with the data collection they were doing on prospective voters in the district. We’d walk around with these clipboards, knock on doors of people on the list and as we asked questions, we’d highlight the answer on the printed form – by highlighting the bar code.

    Back at the office, the less social amongst us would take turns doing data entry with a scanner, occasionally adding the few people with new/unexpected issues by hand typing; but mostly by scanning.

    Very impressive and organized, all right here in Virginia.

  4. If I’d had the column inches, I would have devoted a couple of paragraphs to Virginia. Although the software itself is crappy (Prevail), the data collection practices, the work on the part of Brenner Tobe, and the systems that are in place are great. Far as I’m concerned, the DNC should just follow the Virginia / Tobe model.

  5. When Tim Kaine was first setting things up, and the coordinated campaign asked him what his major campaign goals were, Kaine’s response was to build the voter file, build the party. That’s how he wanted to win. So that’s what they did. I don’t know anything about Brenner Tobe’s side of things, but the coordinated campaign put millions of new ids on the file while the Kilgore folks were busy printing up orange drink cups and handing them out to people at football games. I think the only downside of massive voter contact operations is that they can really only focus well on one candidate at a time. In this case, it was Kaine, while there just wasn’t enough time for pushing Deeds and Byrne.

    But if you look at a map of Virginia, at the counties and precincts where Kaine gained over Warner, it’s virtually an exact map of where hardcore coordinated campaign voter contact was done, where the mail was most targeted, where thousands and thousands of voters were talked in person to every DAY for MONTHS. The rural stuff (on which the Kaine campaign staff proper were focused) didn’t work out as well, but luckily it didn’t have to.

    This is why its hard to believe voters that complain about being phoned or talked to. Yeah, they complain like the dickens. But for some reason, it works.

  6. The work done by Warner in 2001 and Kaine in 2005 (and the coordinated campaign, of course) is the ground work of building lists. Though I only wrote about managing lists in my column, it is the building of them that makes the managing possible. It’s just this aggressive list-building that is leading to the Democratic come-back in Richmond. Without it I don’t doubt we’d be sunk.

  7. Fez,

    I worked closely with one of Kaine’s rural field guys. In many counties you cannot walk everyday, but they were calling and ID voters every day during the week, and then starting in August did volunteer walks each weekend. Kaine would have done better in the rural counties if some more staff and volunteers was allocated to the Kaine rural field guys. Many of these counties were heavily Republican and Democrats are still afraid to be, well, Democrats.

    I mean the guy I worked with had to talk to every Democratic committee and pitch for volunteers, put up signs and still make nightly calls to voters from King George county to York for pete’s sake.

    Kaine’s rural plan worked. Kilgore only received 55% in the 9th, an area he probably counted on 65% in. Kaine won affluent exurban areas like James City, and Loudon. Kaine won Martinsville/Henry, and Danville, and Lynchburg. Even in shenandoah, Kaine won Staunton, Harrisonburg, and held his own in Rockbridge. Kaine lost Spotsy and Stafford, but 45% in those two counties isn’t bad. Kaine even won Accomack County on the Eastern Shore, a county even Warner lost. From what I can tell Kaine targeted the urban suburban areas, but made sure that Dems held the line in rural counties, so that Kilgore couldn’t run the table.

  8. Attention Chad and Waldo –

    You guys have really pulled off an astonishing feat of failure-to-fact-check here. I have to say that I will never trust another bit of technology reportage in your column.

    The DNC has a National Voter Database Project; there is a whole staff assigned to it within the technology department; they’ve got brilliant people on that team – and no big-named pols to get in the way; it’s got a serious budget; they’re working with virtually all the state parties very closely; and they’re kicking ass.

    If you’re going to be Campaigns & Elections’ “contributing tech editors” you have to understand that the people who are spokespeople for campaigns and elections do not understand technology – and they do not even know the tech people on their staff. The tech people are in the basement, and the spokespeople never talk to them or think about them – it’s sad, but it’s true. And of course this goes double state parties.

    Overall, Republicans haven’t done tech better than the Dems — they just do a far better job of selling their tech programs to reporters. Part of the reason is that most RNC tech stuff is handled by external vendors — who DO have spokespeople who understand technology.

    So PLEASE: go down to the DNC HQ, bust your way into that basement, talk to the people working on the voter file — and then issue a correction and appology in your next column.

    I’ll be waiting.

    – Zack

  9. Zack, for starters, I’m not sure what Chad has to do with it; I wrote about the DNC’s efforts.

    Secondly, if the DNC’s spokesman misrepresents his organization’s efforts during a pair of on-the-record interviews with a columnist, that’s an internal problem within the DNC. To blame me for believing my own party’s spokesman is a bit silly, isn’t it?

    Thirdly, what you write (“they’re working with virtually all the state parties very closely”) doesn’t jibe with my own research. I didn’t talk to a soul (having communicated with people in relevant positions in three different state parties) who was familiar with any effort by the DNC to engage in any sort of unified list-management. Nobody. But I didn’t include that in the column, because I trust my party — I simply quoted the DNC rep in his description of the “National Voter Database Project.” If that’s the project that you’re talking about, given that I covered it in my column I’m not really sure what it is that you take issue with.

    What you tell me sounds very good, but it’s 180° opposite from what I was told in an on-the-record interview with the DNC and in background conversations with reps from three major state parties. I wish for what you tell me to be so; if it is, perhaps somebody ought to let a few people outside of some basement know about it, eh?

  10. Zack, it occurs to me that perhaps you haven’t actually read the column in question, and were instead responding to this blog entry. This blog entry provides a very hurried view of a tiny slice of what is itself just a brief column. When re-reading this blog entry with fresh eyes I see that my accidental conflation of multiple conversations into one makes it particularly baffling. I’ve corrected that now. Perhaps that clarifies things for you?

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