Grassroots Basics: The voter registration list and why it is essential
This is part of an occasional series, Grassroots basics for emergent parties.
The voter registration list is the basic tool of grassroots politics. Running a political organization without a voter registration list is like running a business without a computer. It is basic, you need it. Most of the time these files are controlled by state parties and candidates. In my judgment the local party needs control of its voter list. These records are essential for local party organization.
Every state has careful rules about which organizations can buy the voter’s list. You have to be a political party or a candidate for office. That is why a ballot line is so valuable, that is part of what defines a political party. In any case, a local committee should raise whatever sum of money is required to acquire the voter records for their jurisdiction. I would put this on a higher priority than a website. You can use Wordpress or Blogspot to put your committee on the Web.
Therefore someone needs to be in charge of voter files. In the committees I have been involved in the chairman has appointed some hard working, long suffering geek with database skills. If you answer to this description, you are in a position to offer a very valuable service to your local committee.
Now, as to how you use the list. First of all you need to set up your own database. In addition to the name, address, date of birth, date of voter registration, and voting history that the voter’s list will have, you need to add you own fields. For example, is this voter a union member? Is the voter active duty or retired military? Also, you will need fields for issues, does this voter care about the eviroment? Schools? Gun control? Abortion? Some local issue? You need to put in the fields before you start collecting the information. You should have a field for what foreign languages, if any, are spoken by the voter, if they are interested in volunteering, and if so what sort of volunteer work and what days they are available. It is crucial to know in advance who is willing to put a sign in their yard or in their window. You will also need a special field for Do Not Approach. This is for voters when you call them or knock on their door say, “please do not contact me.” That spares future volunteers from contacting people who do not want to be contacted. Obviously you will need a field for donors which will become your fundraising list. And you will need a special field for notes. This field should be large enough to contain a sentence or two, not a paragraph, but longer than 140 characters.
The first thing a voters list does is tell you almost precisely, who your base is. If you are the District of Columbia, your base are those voters who are registered DC Statehood/Green Party. Here in DC the Democratic primary is tantamount to the election, so there are many people such as myself who are registered Democratic who nevertheless vote DC Statehood/Green Party every November. Anyone registered as DC Statehood/Green Party should be considered a determined supporter and a prospect for volunteer work, donate money, or both.
If you are in a state that does not register voters by party affiliation it becomes a bit trickier, but not insurmoutable. If you are in a state that does not register by party, but did have a Green Party Presidential Primary in 2012 you are in luck, whoever voted in the Green primary is a Green. (Note, I am using the Green Party for illustration purposes only. These techniques could be used by any local committee, emergent or legacy party. Corrente is a policy blog, not a partisan cheerleader.)
Here are some examples of how you use the voter’s list. Early in the season, spring, you will want to contact your base to invite them meet and greets so that they are meet the candidates you plan to run and have the possibility to recruit them as active supporters. Never confuse meet and greets with fundraisers. Meet and greets run in the spring are for the base to meet the candidates and recruit volunteers. Meet and greets in the autumn are for voters to meet the candidates and have an opporunity to ask questions. The voters list will help you to organize both.
The notes section of the voter’s list will come in very handy as you do your spring telephone work in contacting your base. Are any of your supporter’s blind, wheel chair bound, or some other special condition? Would they be willing to help organize their community? That is the sort of thing you need to make a note of. Are your supporters members of other communities? Amateur soccer leagues? Tech user groups? Some sensitivity needs to be used in organizing these groups, people do not form soccer leagues for the purpose of political indoctrination; but it might be possible to invite members of that group for a special meet and greet geared to their interests. You can’t organize this if you don’t know what sort of social networks your supporters participate in. That is what a database is for.
You also need to know if any of your supporters own a van or SUV and would be willing to offer rides to the polls on election day. That sort of thing belongs in the data base.
If you want to organize a closed community, a high rise or gated community, the voters list is essential. The voters list will tell you who in that building or gated community supports your party. Once you identify your supporters within a community you can recruit one or more to work within that community to drive up your vote. As a friend of mine put it, closed communities are easy to organize within and very difficult to organize externally.
So, you have acquired your voter registration list and recruited a volunteer database wizard. Where should you store your voter records? Ideally on the computer at party headquarters. Realistically emergent parties do not have anything like enough money to rent a HQ, so some other arrangement will have to be made. Storing on the home computer of the database manager is not a good arrangement. There is always the possibility that the database manager will get mad over some issue and walk out, taking the records with him. Or that he will have some family emergency that will preclude their work for the party. Therefore the records must be stored in a neutral place. Ideally that state party will offer some sort of cloud service wherein the local committee’s can access their records from the state database FOR FREE. If you have to pay for every time you access your records you will lose the flexibility you need. Avoid that sort of arrangement.
You might need to pay for some sort of commercial cloud service. Pay attention to security issues. You might want to consider using a cloud provider based in Canada, Switzerland, or some other more secure based location. If you are short of funds you can always use Google Docs Spreadsheet for free. The problem with that is that both Google and the NSA can access your records. If you cannot afford a more satisfactory solution, I would go ahead and do it. After all the Soviet Union knew everything thing that the dissidents were doing and the dissidents still won. Not having a voters list would be worse than Google and the NSA snooping on the same. The chair and the database manager, and no one else, should have the password. Then if someone says they are want to organize some door knocking and they want a street sort of everyone who voted in the last city council election, the database manager could give them a street sort of the streets involved and no other. Information should be dribbled out on a per-project basis and volunteers should be asked to sign a statement promising not to use the information for selling real estate, Avon, or any other commercial purpose.
The resources of a local emergent party committee are extremely limited. There is no possibility of properly targeting those resources without good records.