Targeting Voters with GIS

By David Opitz

Fundamental to all campaigns--from local to Presidential--is knowing who the voter is.This information is used to create mailing and telephone lists for soliciting support, volunteers and contributions.With the slow decline in the voter turnout rate over the past 30 years, campaigns have had to turn to these lists to develop sophisticated Election Day turnout plans.When only half of the eligible voters vote, it becomes a real science to find them.Let alone the fact that these voters are showing an ever-increasing political independence, thus modern campaigns are starting to communicate earlier every election cycle.The most obvious tool of communication is TV.However the bulk of communication occurs through personal contact called "door to door", mail and telephone.Lists of voters become the lifeline of these contact programs.

Up until recently, voter registration usually relegated to local government's responsibility and has been the odd program out when it came to budgets.The quality of these voter registration lists left campaigns wanting as essential information as voter address or even voting history.Unless the state managed or influenced the format of these lists, that facet also varied from locality to locality.

In the mid 90's the Republican Party of Wisconsin embarked on a program to create for all Republican candidates a superior list of eligible voters--with addresses, vote history and telephone numbers.This was a sizeable task because Wisconsin has over 1700 local governments keeping voter registration information and the information is in no consistent format.Because most of the addresses were not postal standardized by the localities, finding exact locations for door to door contact was difficult.

To bring a common solution to this challenge, the party turned to a relational database software integrated with a geographic information system.GIS was a perfect solution.It permitted merging of lists each with it own relatively important information according to each voter's geocoded address.Not only was a database for election contact developed, but also geographic boundaries of political districts were added.

So the Party could distribute the same address driven information to any political candidate because the GIS permitted any political district to be added as a definition for querying the database.There was another benefit realized by the yearly updating of voter behavior--knowing which voters in what particular district votes consistently.When only 50% of the voters vote, the campaign with this information has the best chance to turn those conscientious voters out.

There is a good future for GIS in the election process.Wisconsin and other states using it have discovered its benefits.With the recent Presidential election decided by fewer than 1000 votes, knowing the location of every vote becomes much and more important for future campaigns.

Published Friday, October 19th, 2001

Written by David Opitz

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