Political Parties Lose Their Monopoly: Techno-Optimist Frees The Voter File

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The closely guarded cashcow of political insiders has been released to the public: the “voter file,” which stores detailed information on likely voters necessary for campaign ad targeting. Prior to its public release, political party insiders used to hoard voter file information like feudal lords, selecting who could access the database and price gouging those lucky enough to have the money. Then, last week, for-profit digital campaign firm and free information crusader, NationBuilder, released a rich database of information about potential voters.

“Two pillars of the democratic process are candidates talking to actual voters (not to dead people that live in another state) and citizens successfully voting. These things cannot happen without accurate and accessible voter data,” went the blog post of NationBuilder CEO, Jim Gilliam, a techno-optimist who famously declared that “the Internet is my religion.” Now that the voter file is free, Gilliam hopes that rogue political candidates and developers will build out the relatively barebones voter database for political innovation and party disruption.

For years, political parties have struggled to maintain tight control of the voter file from the transparency of the web. Last year, for instance, Republicans raged a fierce internal battle when it considered opening up access to their own database to outside organizations.

“THIS IS A BAD IDEA! The national political parties power and influence continues to be diluted,” wrote one former Chairman of the North Dakota Republican Party, Gary Emineth, in an email obtained by Politico. While voter data is technically public, it’s fragmented accross hard-to-access state agencies. Political parties and data firms often spend enormous sums of money collecting the data and augmenting it with super-detailed information on voters. Voter files can contain information on everything ranging from which voters put out a yard sign to which volunteers bring food to campaign events.

More recently, Facebook has been linked up to voter files for the hyper-targeting of social media netizens. Y-combinator startup Amicus uses Facebook to match up volunteers with their online friends, so it’s more likely that a potential canvasser will be asked to get involved by a friend rather than a stranger. Romney’s Digital Director, Zac Moffatt, has been able to achieve an astonishing 10 percent click-through rate on mobile Facebook ads. So, the targeting effect of campaigns, armed with accurate user data, is quite strong.

At least one local candidate is already benefiting from the newfound openness. Here’s an email to TechCrunch from one such candidate, Missouri State Representative Tishaura Jones, who is running for St. Louis Treasurer:

In Missouri, the state party controls access to the Voter Action Network (VAN) or voter file. In prior years, the cost has been either minimal or free. However, this year, the cost was based on the size of the race (i.e. state house district, state senate district, etc.). I ran a citywide campaign, and the corresponding cost to access the VAN was $2,500. I thought this was cost prohibitive because a) we were having a difficult time raising money and b) we preferred to spend our money on field activities and actual voter contact. Add to that, one of my opponents was the chair of the city party and was responsible for granting access to the VAN, which I thought was a serious conflict of interest.

I searched the Internet for hours, because I knew that somewhere, someone had an all-in-one solution that integrated voter file access, web hosting, could send mass email messages, and handle fundraising. I was using Campaign Window, and it had a lot of features, but it had become unreliable in recent months. Then I found Nationbuilder and they had all I was looking for and more! And I couldn’t believe the cost! We built a slick website, the voter data was reliable and accurate, the staff were responsive to my needs, and we won the primary!

It should be noted that NationBuilder is a for-profit tech firm and will likely benefit from the increased exposure. But whether the expense of collecting and freely releasing a voter file makes up for the added business is unknown. Either way, interested readers, campaigners, and developers are free to get more information here.