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Vote Builder and Google Earth Jacob Perkins October 15th, 2008 Delicious

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Tech And The Trail: Google Earth And The Vote Builder

Three weeks out from the presidential election, the focus of the Obama campaign across Virginia has shifted from getting people registered to vote to strongly urging independent and undecided voters to put their support behind the Obama/Biden ticket. The work of persuasion is aided tremendously by a highly specialized database built by the Democratic Party called Vote Builder. This tool allows the campaign staff to define, with great precision, the elusive and all-important undecided voter.

On the eve of a massive GOTV effort, the inspiration for the current and final phase of the Obama Campaign for Change's presence in these northern Virginia counties lies somewhere between the promise of the Obama/ Biden ticket, cell division, and the beloved Transformers of our childhood. The existing offices are rapidly entering into a state akin to mitosis--reproducing asexually in a way that leaves the structural pillars of each office sound, but increases our presence and ability to reach out within each community. The guiding principal is simple: How do we connect with the most people in the most efficient manner?

vote builder

vote builder One of our recent challenges has been finding staging locations (the remote points from which canvasses are "launched") outside of the suburban sprawl that clings tightly to I-95. The vast majority of the "turf" that our volunteers canvass is suburban, but in a race this close, we're striving to reach out to the folks who live off the beaten path as well. It is in the woods, fields, and hills that elections are won and lost. Rural voters tend to be more culturally and politically conservative than their urban counterparts--remember the county-by-county voter distribution maps after the 2004 elections?

With a rapidly advancing weekend canvass to direct, and the importance of the rural vote in mind, one of my colleagues tensely sat at his desk last Wednesday afternoon trying to locate pastors sympathetic enough with our cause to volunteer their church parking lots as canvass staging locations. Phone calls were made and a GPS was brought out. Pacing, head scratching, and aggressive map study ensued. With the stereotype of the Bible thumpin', McCain supportin' Virginian in mind, I was charged with locating and researching the area churches where this person would not, under any circumstances, be found.

After a brief detour through a grim online church directory that promises to spam me every day for the rest of my life, I settled upon my favorite procrastination enabler/sleuthing tool, Google Earth. I scanned the area south of Fredericksburg for the golden steeple icons that Google reserves for places of worship and then shouted addresses, pastor names, and phone numbers across the room to said colleague, who was manically shifting back and forth between laptop and notebook, jotting down numbers and perusing church websites. Occasional pictures of pastors and their inner circles served as a crude indication of how much effort to invest in outreach. I'll be the first to admit one can't judge a book by its cover, but certain profile features tend to indicate a McCain supporter, and the religious, middle-aged McCain supporters down here are somewhat distinctive.

Voter profiling plays a vital role in the groundwork of any political campaign and is, by nature, superficial. As technological strides have been made toward increasingly accurate and accessible voting records, the efforts of campaign field organizers and their throngs of volunteers have become more precise and targeted. Fellow HTML Times columnist Ryanne Hodson alludes to such advances in her article on canvassing for Obama this week: “we had voter's names right there on paper so I felt more prepared than just cold canvassing."

Indeed, one of the key technological tools that have helped to propel this campaign to its current heights is a comprehensive voter database called Vote Builder, a project sponsored by the Democratic National Committee and developed by Voter Activation Network (VAN). None of the individual functions of Vote Builder are particularly groundbreaking; it's the syntheses of functions, the integration of voter information and geographic mapping information, that makes it a tool vastly superior to anything Democratic organizers have had at their disposal in the past.

Existing in it's earliest forms during the 2004 election, Democratic organizers knew that they would need to pour more resources into the project in order to keep stride with the Republican machine. In March of 2007, Ben Self, the DNC Director of Technology told a political blog writer that the 8 million dollar joint effort between VAN and the DNC "is a crucial step to creating a truly national voter file that will allow Democratic candidates to have access to the best possible tool for running their campaigns." Roughly 90 percent of all state Democratic parties are now using the service.

vote builder Vote Builder enables the geography of each state to be broken down into bite-sized bits of territory scattered with dots representing the housing (population) density. These dots correspond with an editable database of names, addresses, phone numbers, and voting history. Canvassing packets are constructed out of lists of addresses that have been selectively "cut" out of the geographic "turf." Once a basic area has been cut, the corresponding names, addresses, etc. can be fiddled with in endless permutations to best target certain demographics. One can select for all the Democratic voters in a given area, or all the Republicans. We're usually hell bent on wooing independents and undecideds.

Through a little detective work on Google Earth and Vote builder, my colleague and I determined that the pastor in question had already cast his ballot utilizing Virginia's early voting option. Given what appeared to be his unwavering support of Republican tickets in the past, we did not bother contacting him to inquire as to the availability of his parking lot. The search for the perfect parking lot continued.

While Vote Builder is neither the most elaborate or sophisticated tool in the world, it has had dramatically influenced the efficiency and organization of Democrats in this election cycle. At the very least, Democrats have now grown competitive with Republicans on access to extensive voter information. In 20 days, we'll know if the development and deployment of Vote Builder has had as broad as organizational impact as we feel that it has and if that will be enough to put the Obama/Biden ticket in the White House.