How to Create Voter Lists for Your Political Campaign - dummies

How to Create Voter Lists for Your Political Campaign

By Dan Gookin

When you’re campaigning for local office, access to voter data and the creation of voter lists are essential to your success. Everyone’s personal voting record is held in confidence; whom they voted for is private, and they mark the ballot anonymously. The fact that someone voted, however, is a public record. Further, information about voter registration is available to anyone who asks. Cumulatively, your voting record, and that of every voter in the district, is valuable data to any candidate.

  • The voting booth is private, but data regarding whether you voted and your voter registration are public.
  • Voter data includes your party affiliation, address, and any other details you’ve offered when you registered to vote, such as your phone number or email.
  • The reason for keeping voter data is to ensure that people are valid electors in their districts. For example, only city residents can vote in a city election. Your voter registration shows your full-time residence, which is what determines in which districts you can vote.

To gather voter data, you must know which government agency handles elections for the office you seek. In many cases, a county agency conducts elections and manages the voter data, even for local elections. For rural locations and smaller districts, it may be the government entity itself that handles the election.

Before you begin your campaign, seek out the agency that holds voter data. You need this data for your mailing lists, walking lists, phone lists, and so on.

  • In most states, the chief elections officer is the secretary of state. This office oversees all voters and elections, though local entities may run the elections.
  • At the local level, a county officer may oversee all elections. The title varies: supervisor of elections, registrar of voters, county clerk.
  • The entity that runs local elections might also be the entity with which you register to become a candidate.

If you’re completely in the dark as to who runs the election, phone up the government entity where you seek office and ask them.

Gather election data

Before you begin your campaign, obtain some voter lists. These are public records, and most election authorities offer the data to anyone who asks. You may be required to fill in a request form, which is fine. A fee may be associated with the request.

Have the request filled electronically; you do not want a paper copy. The voter list may be available in plain text format, Excel, or some type of database. Get the list in Excel format. Most direct mail marketing firms use Excel when they send bulk mail.

The agency managing the voter registration lists doesn’t filter the voter data for you. Some agencies may allow you to specifically request voter data within a specific district. If so, request that your list include only currently registered voters for the political division where you seek office: the city, school district, fire district, and so on. Otherwise, obtain the entire list, which you must filter.

Request to receive historical voter data. You want to gather voting records that go back at least four years. Lists that go back longer are better, but you risk including that voters have moved. The historical voter data helps you build a list of frequent voters, people who vote in all elections — even the small elections. These people are your key demographic.

Ensure that the voter data lists physical and mailing addresses. The physical address is what determines in which elections a voter is qualified. The mailing address is where voters receive mail. You want to send your material only to the mailing address.

Other details are helpful in the list, including party registration, phone numbers, and email. The more data, the better.

Beyond the voter list, also request election results and turnout data for prior elections. These items can help you determine your campaign strategy and budget.

Turnout details help you gauge how big of a campaign you must run. If an average of 2,400 people vote in your library district, count on that number of voters to turn out for your election. Use this rule as a guide because many factors determine voter turnout.

Also review how current officeholders fared in past elections. If you’re running against an incumbent, see whether the past few elections have showed a downward trend. If so, the officeholder’s enchantment with the public may be waning.

  • The election authority may prohibit members of the public from using voter data for advertising or solicitation purposes. For running a political campaign, however, the voter roll is fair game.
  • The fee you pay for voter data is a campaign expense. Remember to record it as such. Not every elections office charges for the data.
  • Be aware that voter lists become obsolete quickly. Even the most current list has invalid data in it.

You need voter data only for the district in which you’re running. Do not obtain the full voter list unless the elections office is unable to provide a specific list. (If so, removing unqualified voters becomes your responsibility.)

How to prepare your voter lists

The purpose of gathering historical voter data is to identify and target key voters in your election. You use the information for mailing and phoning and when going door-to-door. Yard signs and billboards aren’t as effective as targeting specific, frequent voters.

To make the most of the voter data, you must prepare specific lists. This task requires a bit of skill in Excel, assuming that it’s the file format for the voter data. If you’re not adept at using Excel, find a campaign volunteer to assist you. Good lists are valuable to your campaign, so paying someone to massage them is a worthy expense.

You’ll likely create multiple specific lists from the master voter list that’s provided. Make copies of that file so that each list is held in its own file:

  • Chronic voters
  • A walking list
  • Targeted mailing lists
  • An absentee list

The following sections go over specifics for each list.

The chronic voter list

The voter database contains a lot of people who have moved, who don’t vote, or who vote only in presidential elections. Somewhere in that list, however, you’ll find chronic voters — these are your key demographic, the people who vote in every single election.

To create the list, look at the voter’s history. You want on the list only people who have voted in every election held over the past few years. In Excel, you can sort the list by the previous elections’ columns to see which rows offer these valued voters.

Chronic voters are important because they don’t miss elections. They will vote in your election. If your campaign can afford it, you must send material to every chronic voter. It’s far easier to persuade a chronic voter to vote for you than it is to persuade a casual voter.

A walking voter list

Going door-to-door is a time-honored campaign tradition. The goal is to knock on voters’ doors and not waste time with people who don’t vote. Your voter list helps you make this determination.

A good walking list is about logistics. Like the post office delivering mail, you want a list that most efficiently covers an area. Use your chronic-voter list as a base because it contains people certain to vote in your election. Divide the list into the smallest political division, such as a precinct.

Within each list, organize the voters by street and then in order by house number. For most locations, this level of organization is good enough, though if you have volunteers who know the area, divide the list by neighborhood. Such a task can’t really be done automatically, but it saves time to do so in advance rather than shuffle papers while you walk.

Specific voter lists for targeted mailers

If your campaign budget is huge, you can send out multiple mailers to everyone on your chronic-voters list. Assuming you don’t have a huge campaign budget, the third type of voter list you want must be highly focused. It’s a subset of the chronic voter.

For example, create a list that shows only voters who vote in your specific election. These people may skip other elections, yet they show a focus on the district where you desire a seat. Call them chronic district voters.

Peruse prior years’ election data to see in which precincts or areas an incumbent opponent has done poorly. Create lists that target those areas, and create specific mailers that focus on those voters.

Determine which elections have lower turnout. Create a list of people who voted in those elections, especially when incumbents ran unopposed. These are your die-hard voters, and you want to reach out to them.

Creating a targeted mailer list may seem like more work, but the effort pays off. The cost of direct mail to these voters is worthy.

A list of absentee voters

Another list you need is one showing those people who show a preference for voting absentee. This list is specific to those locations where absentee voting is held. States where all elections are by mail work differently.

Peruse the collected election data to cull those voters who vote absentee. Create a list, a subset of the chronic-voters list, that shows only those voters. The goal is to hit them up early. You want to send out a heads-up because all of them vote well before the general election.

This step is the second approach in reaching early voters, along with the absentee-voter list.

  • Your campaign for office is a marketing campaign. You want to reach your best customers, those people who vote frequently.
  • If you’re in a partisan race, you must create lists for two elections — that is, unless your area is so partisan that winning the primary guarantees victory in the general election.
  • Don’t mess too much with the list’s raw data if you plan to use a direct-mailing firm. Excel can do weird things to large spreadsheets. These changes can upset the special software used by the bulk-mailing houses. Leaving the voter list as unmolested as possible is a good thing.
  • Some campaign managers may insist that you visit every house when door-knocking. They recommend carrying voter registration cards so that you can sign up nonvoters. You can whip up interest for low-frequency voters as well. If you have time, pursue this strategy, though you should confer with others who’ve run campaigns in your area, to see whether this approach is an effective use of time.
  • Parties often have lists, so if you’re a party member, you might be able to obtain their lists and appeal to voters who share common interests.

Purge the lists

In addition to creating specific voter lists, you must do some eliminating. This step takes place after you’ve created your chronic voter list, walking list, absentee list, and so. The goal is to remove and combine.

First, you want to remove from the list people you are certain will not vote for you. For example, your opponent. You can also pull out your opponent’s supporters and others you’re certain aren’t casting a vote for you. Eliminating such people from your voter list may seem petty, but this process saves campaign resources.

Second, you must combine multiple voters at the same residence. If five people are registered to vote at 555 Fifth St., you’re wasting four stamps and four postcards sending mail to each of them. Instead, create a single record.

For example, if multiple voters at the same residence share their last name, create a single entry: Quintus Household. Bulk mailing services to so automatically.

Another tactic to use is overlaying multiple address labels so that each name appears but only one address. The figure illustrates how this technique works.

multiple voters on voter list

Contacting multiple voters.

How to obtain ongoing voter data

The election authority generates voter data as the election unfolds. This new information might also be available to the public. It includes

  • People who have applied for an absentee or vote-by-mail ballot
  • People who have already voted
  • New-voter registrations

If possible, sign up to receive this information as it becomes known. Hopefully, your area’s elections office provides the details with little fuss and no fees. If fees are charged, they’re worth it. Use this data to contact new voters and to purge from your list the people who’ve already voted.