Monday, June 13, 2005

Political Data Management

By Kevin J. Rice, Mundelein IL (847) 845-7423

June 6th, 2005


I recently joined the Illinois Eighth U.S. Congressional District’s “Data Committee”. It’s a party organization seeking to assist any Democrats running for federal, state, county, local, school board, and other elections. The Data Committee is a group of 6+ IT people and we’re trying to come up with tools and techniques that can help the larger organization be more effective.

The user needs go are huge and vital to actually helping get our people elected:

  • Names, addresses, phone numbers (etc.) of people who have contributed time, money, and efforts in the past and/or who have indicated they might in the future;
  • Names etc. of people willing to volunteer in distributing literature, being election judges, etc.
  • List of all elected positions for each jurisdiction (local governments, school boards, village trustees, township trustees, water districts, county government, state and federal government);
  • List of who is currently occupying those positions and their party affiliation if possible (so we know who to help);
  • Some determination of the boundaries of each of these jurisdictions on a map;
  • A list of all the (primarily residential) mailing addresses in a given jurisdiction;
  • First and last names for the people living at those addresses;
  • A list of the eligible voters for a given jurisdiction;
  • A list of people (with their addresses) who are NOT registered to vote living in a jurisdiction (to visit with our registrars to help them get registered);
  • A list of people (with their addresses) who have voted in previous primary elections and if they voted in the Democratic primary, Republican primary, or as an independent;
  • A list of people (and their addresses) who’ve voted in the full elections;
  • A walklist: a list of likely voters (those who have voted in the past in Democratic primaries), sorted in order by address in such a way that a person walking down a street could look at the list and quickly determine where stop and make contact;
  • Having a walklist indicate if that person has recently moved there or has been there a long time;
  • Having a walklist indicate if that person is elderly and might need a ride to the polling station (so we could offer that service);
  • Having a walklist indicate if they were willing or enthusiastic about having a sign in their yard;
  • Having a walklist indicate if they typically gave money and if so how much (roundabouts) and how (by mail, online, etc.) so we could thank them in person for their past gifts and offer them a chance to contribute again;
  • Having a walklist indicate with some short notes anything of interest about that person – if they’re interested in running as a candidate, if they’re willing to also contact their neighbors and distribute literature, or help in any other non-monetary way, if they have an deep interest in some specific topic like water quality issues or some local issue, and the positions of the current candidates and incumbents on that issue;
  • Having the walklist indicate if they speak any other languages (Spanish only, for instance) so the person walking would know they’d need to have a Spanish speaker along, etc.;
  • Having literature tailored to their address with a list of the candidates and who of those we’re endorsing (some independents are endorsed by one, both, or neither major party);
  • Having a sample ballot pre-printed for their address with our candidates marked clearly, in the same format as the real ballot, so they can just walk into the polling place carrying that one sheet of paper and they’d know who we’d like them to vote for;

The complications to implementing this are many and huge:

  • As a registered political organization (to register, we file a form with the state of Illinois), we can purchase (for a nominal $50-ish fee) a list of all voters in each election that indicates whether they requested a Democratic, Republican, or other ballot in a primary election:
    • This list is compiled by the state but is often different than the same one (very often a less accurate one) provided by the county;
    • Some counties only provide hardcopy of their lists, with less than ideal image quality;
    • We are prevented by law (with criminal penalties and stiff fines) from releasing any of this information to the general public. Marketing firms and stalkers (if there’s a difference) would like to have this data, too;
    • The State of Illinois list has a unique identifying number next to each voter, but this number sometimes changes between elections. It might be supplied by the county, or it might be generated by the state, we don’t know for sure.
    • I’d love to suggest that the Illinois legislature require that each voter be assigned a unique identifying number, their voter-id number, and we can use that to track voters. It would have the side effect of reducing voter fraud by matching numbers, addresses, etc., with other state records. Right now it is (supposedly) possible to register to vote in several counties and vote in each.
  • There are a frightening number of jurisdictions (areas that elect people). Many jurisdictions overlap, and very often a precinct (a geographic area for which there is one polling place) will contain multiple different jurisdictions – some residents will be in one water board district and others not; some will be in a city and others in a rural fire protection district, etc.;
  • During the election, “poll watchers” are permitted to access the precinct records to see which eligible voters have not yet voted. We can then activate a call list or dispatch cars to give rides to these voters to and from the voting station; However, this is a paper based process and someone would have to have an automated way of handling this to be truly effective, unless the number of non-voters was very low;
  • Americans move fairly often. U.S. Census Bureau says on average, Americans move every 5 years (http://www.uwex.edu/ces/cced/CommunityIndicators2.htm). This means the historical voting record data we have (which includes address as well as name) is useless if the person has moved, unless they have moved within our jurisdiction, and at that point we have a further problem to match them to their history and flag that the old house as having new tenants;
  • Our area is experiencing rapid home building, and is experiencing population growth. New residents have different concerns and voting patterns than established residents. New homeowners are frequently young parents and have concerns very different from unmarried, middle aged, empty-nester, or elderly voters;
  • Everyone who moves complicates the name vs. address matching process for voting history and current resident’s name;
  • Apartment blocks are even more volatile (short-term residents) than average and their residents may not have registered to vote in their new locations yet;
  • Some people live in areas that have historically been totally Republican dominated, but disagree with this silently. Thus, they’re not comfortable putting up yard signs that say, “Vote Democrat!” (or vice versa). However, sometimes a yard sign that just shows the candidate’s name and not their party are okay for these people, because they can claim they didn’t know if the person was Democratic or Republican. Or, the candidate can run as an independent and we can help them anyway, to displace a monolithic party apparatus/candidate.
  • Many political offices have people running unopposed because no one knew they could run for that office;
  • Many people don’t know what commitments of money, time, and (invasion of) privacy are required for running for political office. They might be willing to run if they had a more accurate picture of the process;
  • Before the elections, we often have to call up candidates and find out whether they affiliate with the Democratic or Republican. Sometimes we can tell based on their ballot-type histories (above) but other times we just don’t know. This requires time.
  • Sometimes just finding out who is running at all is difficult;
  • Lastly, sometimes the county clerk redraws the precinct boundaries. The legitimate purpose of this is to evenly distribute voters so polling places are not too crowded and there’s no lines, etc. However, this sometimes happens just a few weeks before the election and (if I’m really correct) the county clerk isn’t under any obligation to tell anyone about it besides the candidates running in those precincts. This wouldn’t matter except that if the clerk is a Republican, they redraw the boundaries and tell the candidates, but they also tell various people in the Republican party . Then, the party can mobilize, contact their likely voters, and tell them that the location where they’re going to vote has changed. This could lead to large numbers of primarily Democratic voters showing up to the wrong place on election day. This kind of thing happens all the time across the U.S. and (the rumor mill says) has happened here in Lake County, Illinois (though this is unconfirmed).

These and other problems face candidates and those interested in promoting a political party’s aspirations. We know there is a way to solve this set of data problems.

Further, and very importantly, these same problems are faced everywhere. Is there an open source solution to this? We’d like a set of tools that can help. Requirements would seem to be:

  • It’s open source, so we know we’re not being handicapped by a biased program;
  • It doesn’t favor any political party or have branding associating it with a political party, so it could be used internationally;
  • Should make the voting process easier (with a sample ballot) so people don’t stand in the voting booth thinking, “Do I like this guy or is he a bad guy?”
  • Should thus increase voter turnout;
  • Should increase transparency in government and the voting process;
  • Should allow people to have a more accurate idea of what’s involved in running for office;
  • Should allow interaction with the average voter to allow them to voice their concerns and have questions answered by the candidates, or request a candidate visit;
  • Should allow easier communication of pertinent info about races that are frequently ignored but are nonetheless quite important (retention of judges);

Obviously, there’s a long way to go here, but it would be nice if the open source community could start a solution for this.


Software for a handheld computer, like a palm pilot, for the walklist would be great. Maybe even a barcode scanner – they could scan a barcode instead of typing of “Now entering data for address 123 anywhere, Dave Brown”, they could just have sheets of paper that had a barcode for Dave brown at that address etc.;

Just some ideas. Maybe someone with software already could open-source it and everyone could use it, or at least certain party organizations could license it freely. Regardless, we need a place to start.


-- Kevin J. Rice, Mundelein, IL

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