Preparing for 2010
November 17, 2008 1:52 PM   Subscribe

I need to build a database or buy a software solution to help manage electoral work with the 30,000 individuals I represent. I need to be able to map members to their electoral districts and check against voter registration roles, but I have no idea where to start. Help?

I represent an organization that is an umbrella group of sorts. Our membership consists of 40 separate organizations who in turn have about 30,000 individual members combined. For electoral work the organizations are going to start turning over the list of their members to me so that I can manage combined voter registration and targeted campaign outreach to those members. I need to design a system that would allow me to:

#1 Neatly import and organize data from member organizations (likely will be in spreadsheet or database form)
#2 Assign individuals to state, federal and local electoral districts (I.e. I will need to generate a list of all members in a particular congressional, state legislative, or county commission district)
#3 Cross check member names with voter registration rolls to be able to determine if a particular individual is registered to vote or not.

Bonus points for:
#1 The organizations I work with tend to represent highly transitory individuals. Each time I get a current list from them it is very likely that phone numbers, addresses will change, as well as new members added and old members quitting. It would be nice to have the system robust enough to be able to keep current as I dump in new lists.
#2 Be Mac OS x based. (perhaps file maker pro?)

I have quite a bit of time before the next election, so I have time to lay down infrastructure and learn new skills to do this right. Any idea what software / services / training / help I will need to hire to carry this out? What kind of budget might this entail to do it right?

I consider myself highly computer literate. I can write HTML and some PHP but know nothing at all about relational databases. I would like to eventually learn more and would be willing to take classes or receive training if necessary to build this system.
posted by jlowen to Computers & Internet (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Perhaps CiviCRM would be a good starting point? There was a module designed specifically for managing voter files under development.
posted by PueExMachina at 2:15 PM on November 17, 2008


You might consider a CRM application. SugarCRM is an open-source one.
posted by rhizome at 2:19 PM on November 17, 2008


You may find something more specific than my recommendation by looking through the Organizer's Tool Crib.
posted by PueExMachina at 2:23 PM on November 17, 2008


"I consider myself highly computer literate. I can write HTML and some PHP but know nothing at all about relational databases. I would like to eventually learn more and would be willing to take classes or receive training if necessary to build this system."

You need to hire a professional to do this.

"#3 Cross check member names with voter registration rolls to be able to determine if a particular individual is registered to vote or not."

Voter registration rolls are funny things. In some states, they're free, in other states quite costly. To get them, you're going to have to do one of two things: either contact Boards of Election (mostly county boards, in some cases state boards), and interpret and import the various different formats they are provide in, or outsource this to some vendor who already does this. On a cost-per basis, outsourcing is probably cheaper, especially as you'll have to rematch every time you get a new member, and (monthly, semi-annually, whatever) to check members who have moved.

"#1 The organizations I work with tend to represent highly transitory individuals. Each time I get a current list from them it is very likely that phone numbers, addresses will change, as well as new members added and old members quitting. It would be nice to have the system robust enough to be able to keep current as I dump in new lists."

This is an argument for a real database, not some Excel or Filemaker hack. Moreover, it's an argument for a vendor that can clean addresses and attach phone numbers. This is costly, and be sure to have a contract that either prevents them from keeping the data, or that gives you a discount for letting them keep it. Good data's more valuable than a good system; bad data is literally less than worthless (it's a cost).

"#2 Assign individuals to state, federal and local electoral districts (I.e. I will need to generate a list of all members in a particular congressional, state legislative, or county commission district)"

Again, you may just want to contract to a list-cleaner here. You give them your list, they contract to not sell it, they provide you with precinct, cd, hd, and sd for each member. The key here is precinct, because everything else is dependent on that (and it lets you tell members where they go to vote).

This is a pain-in-the-ass to do, as you need to either sanitize/normalize the address by using a proprietary and costly USPS database, or you need to roll your own (and TIGER, though pretty easy to set up, grows increasingly out of date). Matching against voter rolls only works for folks already registered, and that's a PITA too, what with people with the same name: Srs., Jrs., Thirds, etc. Matching against birthdays helps, but no one is going to want to give you that, out of fear of identity theft, etc. Not to mention that 20% of your members will give you data that doesn't clearly match -- first names they use, not their legal first names, missing middle initials, bad address (especially apartment dwellers and people in basements, etc.), wrong zipcodes, etc.

You may even want to go whole-hog and have the vendor manage the mailings, but that might be cheaper in-house if you can set up a decent system.

It really comes down to this: how much additional data (beyond address) will you be managing about each member? How much processing outside of sending mailings will you be doing? How often do you plan to send mail? Only if you're really going to be doing a lot of extra processing, is it worth trying to do this without a list vendor. And if you're going to do that, you need to spend the money to do it right, by hiring a database designer and a a team to code the app, and even then you'd want to outsource th matching to registration rolls.

(Trust me, I've worked with BOE formats, and it's just mess. Yes, they don't change often, so you can set up a system to import them, but you're talking about different formats for every county in the US, plus whatever they charge for the data, plus the cost of setting up your system and doing regular improts. For 30,000 members, it's not worth doing in-house.)

Get quotes from various list-cleners and list-mailers. Figure out the cost of going with them for four years. See if you can get that cost down by agreeing to share your lists with them. Figure out what you can get for renting your lists outright. Then figure out of you still need in an in-house system, and contract with a professional database designer to build that part of it.
posted by orthogonality at 3:05 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]


If you are in California, CA VoterConnect is a great organization that does exactly what you need. If you are not in CA, they may still be helpful - you might email them for more information.
posted by judith at 3:16 PM on November 17, 2008


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