The Voter File: Understanding, utilizing, and building your universe

Taylor Valley
May 25, 2015 · 9 min read

The voter file is probably one of the most useful but misunderstood campaign resources out there; however, at it’s core, it’s a very basic tool that every campaign should utilize. As someone who has spent countless hours working with these files, I’d like to explain what the voter file is, why you should use it, and a few strategies to get the most out of it by integrating your data.

“…when someone approaches me about obtaining this resource, they [typically] have misconceptions about what the file actually is.”

I work for an organization that provides a standardized voter file to candidates on all levels nationwide, and typically when someone approaches me about obtaining this resource, they have misconceptions about what the file actually is. Every candidate knows they need it, but often wonder what everyone means by the “voter file” anyways? In it’s most basic definition, the voter file is a list of people who live and vote in your district. Depending on your state, the voter file might include information like name, address, phone number, race and ethnicity, gender, party registration, and most importantly vote history. Some states like Florida and California attempt to collect email addresses as well, although that does not give you permission to spam those people.

Obtaining the voter file is actually quite easy, unless you hail from one of the few states who charge a fee to access it. Where I come from in Ohio, I can easily hop on the Secretary of State’s website and download a .CSV file containing all of the info I need to start a campaign. Some states like Alabama however, charge up to $30,000 just for a simple Excel spreadsheet! It’s also common for states to be a few years behind in technology, so you should expect to see paper forms and CD-ROMS when requesting your file. Luckily, companies like NationBuilder have done the work for you and made the voter file accessible for everyone, whether or not you’re a paying customer. No matter if you go through your local board of elections or a company like NationBuilder, the point is to get this information, because it’s the driving engine of a well oiled campaign on any level (1).

So now you have the voter file, great, what do you do with it? Good question. Honestly, I know a lot of campaign mangers that will only use the voter file for direct mail lists or phone numbers and nothing else. In my opinion, the voter file should be the central place where you track every relationship you’re building in your community. Every time you knock on a door, make a phone call, or even Tweet at someone, you should be using the voter file to track your progress. Nothing is worse than waking up on Election Day with GOTV on your mind, only to find out you have no idea how many “yes votes” you’ve accumulated over the campaign. The voter file without action is just a list full of names and phone numbers.

Most of the time, once a person obtains a voter file, they get caught up in the data that’s missing, rather than figuring out creative ways to utilize what they have (2). I can’t tell you how many folks I talk to who say, “Yeah this is great, but if it doesn’t have [whatever data point], it’s worthless to me.” Trust me, I understand that sentiment, but the point here is to build up the file over time by enriching it with the real human interactions that you’re having in the field. Integrated data can be such a beautiful thing, so I strongly suggest putting in the extra effort to organize a database that can merge together all actions that a voter takes both online and on-the-ground. Social media is one of the best places to learn about a person on a deeper level, especially when they’re already engaging with you online. Merge that actionable data together with their registered address and phone number to streamline your voter contact efforts.

Sure, maybe the voter file doesn’t contain everything you need to run a super micro-targeted campaign, so that’s why data vending companies exist! There are multiple options out there such as L2, Accurate Append, and Aristotle who can attach additional information to your voter file. I’ll never forget the first time I pulled up (L2) a few years ago, and started targeting voters based on the type of car they drive. This kind of information is awesome, but it costs a lot of money (3). On a local election with a shoestring budget, it’s far more cost effective to enrich your file over time, and let’s face it, real human interactions will lead to better data in the long-run anyways. For example, have your canvassers mark down what type of car is in each driveway while they’re out dropping literature. Over time this type of data will become just as valuable as the data you would have spent hundreds of dollars on otherwise.

“More than 80 of 100 undecided voters who answered the door responded positively to the candidate’s ask and pledged their support on Tuesday.”

Try not to overthink the basic targeting process when you’re working with the voter file. Even if you don’t have thousands of dollars to spend on data enrichment, you can still run a targeted outreach effort with the information provided. The first thing I always look at is party registration (if your state collects that info). Chances are, you should focus on turning out the base of people who already claim to be on your side. Next, focus on undecided voters who are known to have a much higher rate of conversion than those who already identify with your opposition. The most important piece of data to examine in your initial outreach to undecided’s is vote history. What is the point of contacting someone who hasn’t voted in 13 years and doesn’t claim a party? There are plenty of folks who actually show up on E-Day, and using the turnout history provided in the voter records, you can prioritize your outreach and get more out of your limited time. This is especially important on the local level where turnout rates are abysmal. It’s a valiant effort to convert non-voters into engaged citizens, but trust me, you won’t win an election that way.

I tell this story a lot, but I was working with a county-wide candidate in 2014 who wanted to try something revolutionary. By using his campaign engagement platform, the team collected social media actions from over 5,000 people including the Facebook posts they liked, retweets, and mentions of the candidate. Next, he took a team of interns who sat down and merged the county’s voter file with the relevant social media accounts and found roughly 2,500 matches. That Saturday, when the candidate was out in the field, he knocked on the door of undecided voters and said things like, “Hey voter, I noticed that you liked my post on education reform, so I wanted to stop by and let you know that I fully support our teachers.” The success in this “social GOTV” was incredible. More than 80 of 100 undecided voters who answered the door responded positively to the candidate’s ask and pledged their support on Tuesday (4). Keep in mind this approach assumes that at least 50% of legitimate social media followers are constituents in the district. Also, merging data is no easy task. You will either need manpower or the help of data professionals in order to achieve the best results.

In any competitive sport, coaches and their teams will review hours of their opponents footage to learn their plays and strategy. In politics, it pays to know who your opponents supporters are so that you don’t waste your time contacting them. Party registration is just one indicator in a partisan election of folks you may not want to waste your time on, especially if they are consistent voters. On the flip-side of merging together your social media supporters with the voter file, it may be worth combining your opponents following as well. Why would you do this? If someone follows both you and your opponent on Twitter for example, and shows up as “undecided” on the voter file, this is an individual who is essentially “begging” for persuasion. If someone frequently engages with your opponent online but not you, maybe that’s someone you should take off of the voter contact list, because after all, time is the most valuable resource you have (5). Also, if a person is undecided on the voter rolls but has #UniteBlue in their Twitter bio, it’s probably safe to say that they are active and vote progressive. Same with conservatives, bio keywords like “patriot,” “liberty,” or “#tcot” will help identify online GOP activists.

The voter file is becoming more indispensable over time, and the volume of requests that I receive on a daily basis signifies that it’s here to stay. Candidates want to be cutting edge, they want to better understand their constituents, and the voter file has the lowest barrier of entry to reaching that goal. It’s more than just a list of names and phone numbers, these are the real people who live, work, and create in your community. Use the voter file as a base to identify, connect, and build meaningful relationships with the people you want to represent. No, simply having the voter file won’t earn you a “W” on Election Day. With a splash of strategic thinking and a dose of database software, you have the opportunity to use this resource better than your opponent and pull away victorious on the big day.

Good luck out there — TJV


(1) Yes, I work for NationBuilder and happen to think our free voter file program is pretty cool. For the sake of not being biased, I highly encourage you to obtain the most recent voter file at the most cost-effective price. If NationBuilder’s file is a little older and your local elections board has a newer file for free, you should definitely get the data directly from the source and then import it into your campaign system. You could also obtain the file from your local or state party if they maintain that type of data.

(2) This is almost always email addresses. I want to set the expectation now that a large majority of states do not collect this information. Don’t think you’ll be obtaining email addresses for free, and by the way, those people didn’t opt-in to your spammy emails anyways. The best way to obtain emails is to grow your list organically, but that’s a whole different story.

(3) I’m not endorsing any one of these companies over another. They are each really good at doing different things, so I recommend you look into multiple data enrichment options before making a purchase. Even the data mining giant Acxiom can provide good political data.

(4) As an academic guy I alway cite data. Unfortunately, due to privacy restrictions, you’ll just have to take my word for it on this one. I’m personally working on my own type of campaign exactly like this, and I’ll report back with updated results when I get them.

(5) Twitter followers and followings are considered public information, and many tools exist that allow you to harness this data outside of the Twitter interface.

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action

Thanks to Joe Wisniewski and Jeff Swift.

Taylor Valley

Written by

Organizer Sandbox

thoughts on digital engagement and social action