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A Revolution in Canvassing Among Voters

Nov 23, 2011

By KRISTEN McQUEARY, Chicago News Corp

When political candidates ring doorbells this election season, the people who answer should not be surprised if the stranger on the stoop seems particularly intuitive.

Technology is allowing candidates - many for the first time - to log into voter databases from their cellphones. The combination of data mining and hand-held connectivity gives canvassers instant access to files that may include details about voters' political leanings, voting history and even magazine subscriptions.

"I think it's fabulous," said Robert Martwick of Norridge, a Democratic candidate for state representative. "In the old days, we went door to door with a poll sheet, and you basically knocked on a door, and you had no idea who you were about to talk to."

This is the first election since legislative maps in Illinois and throughout the country were redrawn with data from the 2010 census, making the scramble for information about the electorate particularly intense for politicians navigating new district boundaries. Paperwork is due by Dec. 6 in order to get on the 2012 ballot in Illinois.

Mr. Martwick sought to improve efficiency and effectiveness on a recent Tuesday afternoon by downloading a map of retiree households in a four-block area: residents who were more likely to be home. And before knocking on a single door, he tapped his cellphone to pull up voter files on each person.

While collecting information about voters is not new, technology is making the files more detailed and convenient. Both political parties use databases that blend publicly available information, like voting history, with census data and certain types of consumer market research.

The files are more extensive in states with critical presidential primaries. But even in Illinois, voters who have shared their political interests with candidates while standing on the front porch might have their comments wind up attached to a permanent file in a voter database.

Subscriptions to Field & Stream magazine might be included in the file because the publication tends to reveal an interest in hunting and gun rights. Military veterans, and sometimes even pet owners, are noted as well.

Campaigns use the information to hyper-target voters - not just for face-to-face encounters but also to distribute campaign materials.

"If you wanted to run an ad specific to pocketbook issues, which you would want to get out to women, you would take a look at the voter database and narrow down where there might be a high concentration of women voters, and place a mailer there," said Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the Republican National Committee.

Bill Brady, the Republican nominee for governor in 2010, caught the brunt of a data-driven campaign last year when Illinois Democrats used information about pet owners gleaned from consumer research and imported it into the database. Mr. Brady, who lost to Gov. Pat Quinn by less than one percentage point, had sponsored a bill in the State Senate to allow animal shelters to administer euthanasia to more than one animal at a time.

The television advertisement described Mr. Brady as a supporter of "gas chambers" for pets. It was broadcast in the suburbs where the voter database indicated the highest concentration of pet owners, hitting a group most likely to find his legislation offensive and harsh.

Both parties said they were intensifying efforts to blend more consumer marketing research into political databases. If campaigns know that conservative women tend to shop online at certain retailer sites, they can place a pop-up advertisement there.

And social networking sites have become the new frontier of voter outreach. Both parties are trying to harness more information about social media users in order to target them in other ways, through mailings or phone calls.

"With the evolution of social media, of course, whatever you put out there is out there," said Jim Carey, adjunct professor at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern. "So if you are on Facebook talking about the Republican primary debates, people might be able to infer conclusions and make guesses."

Scott Cisek, the Cook County Democratic Party political director, who is helping Mr. Martwick's campaign, said easier access to voter files helped clinch several close elections from Lake County to southern Illinois during the last two cycles.

"In three elections," Mr. Cisek said, "we aggressively used the new technology, and it was one of the things that made a difference."

For example, in State Senator Michael Bond's race in 2006' Democrats used PalmPilots - an early version of today's smartphone - to interview thousands of Lake County residents about their top concerns. A week before the election, they mailed letters to the voters they had interviewed, telling them specifically what Mr. Bond would do to address their issue if elected.

"The paperwork of that would have been impossible without the database," Mr. Cisek said.

Both parties guard their voter databases carefully and require passwords to use them. The detail in them varies by state. Democrats use a software program called VoteBuilder, Republicans use Voter Vault. In most states, candidates who want to use the database have to be vetted first.

And they often pay. The Illinois Democratic County Chairmen's Association houses the database for Democrats in the state. The association charged the Senate Democratic caucus more than $20,000 to use it in 2010.

While the databases are helpful, Professor Carey said that their use was still limited and that privacy rights still outweighed the rights of marketing companies to circulate data.

"It's not conclusive," he said. "And people, of course, infuriatingly, change their minds. Just because someone said something four years ago doesn't mean that's what they think today.

"For the most part, the databases reveal the most partisan, most active voters, not the independents, and elections are won by them, the people in the middle."

New-York Times November 19, 2011
WBEZ November 22, 2011

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