Mobile Is Great, but Paper and People Can Still Carry Election Day

Use of Tech for Get Out the Vote Grows, but Traditional Approaches Remain

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Credit: Bloomberg

Sometimes get-out-the-vote efforts on election day come in virtual form: encouragement from a Facebook friend to vote, or a campaign volunteer using a mobile app to map her door-knocking route. But traditional methods like printed walk-lists and door hangers still abound, especially on voting day.

"You probably use paper more for GOTV to be honest," said David Griggs, national field director for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which aims to win state legislative seats for Democrats.

That's not to say they're stuck in the 1950s. Democratic staff and volunteers in most every state in the nation he works with through the committee's Grassroots Victory Program have employed mobile tools to access information about which voter homes to visit and what issues they care about, as well as update contact information and feed data back into the system about which candidates they favor, said Mr. Griggs.

"Nearly every state we work with in one way or another is using a mobile app," he said. "The amount they use it, which type of staff use it, which device, all those details change from state to state."

Mobile is particularly handy at recruiting and tracking volunteers. But on election day, when voters need to be reached, the old-school methods often are preferred. For one thing, campaigns, advocacy groups and party organizations have more information to get in the hands of more people on voting day than during the rest of the election cycle, he said. Door hangers promoting a particular candidate or candidates need to be hung on the right doors in the right districts, and maps, scripts and walk lists must be organized.

"That's a tremendous amount of work and that's done ahead of time," he said. For example, centralized field staff in Madison, Wisc., determine DLCC voter "universes" to reach on election day, then, as Mr. Griggs put it, that centralized staff "work to cut the turf" and distribute the information throughout the state for GOTV efforts.

The DLCC and its volunteers have attempted to reach voters 2 million times in the past four days, according to Mr. Griggs. Not only are more people's doors being knocked, more canvassers are knocking. Whereas 10 volunteers might canvass an area earlier in the season, "During GOTV it could be 100," he said.

Mobile platforms for field operations have allowed the DLCC to track issues individual voters care about and helped connect candidates directly to those people to discuss those issues, said Mr. Griggs. This election season, the group has recruited more volunteers and staff, and contacted more voters than ever as a result of mobile tech, he added. "We're doing far more work in 2014 than we did in 2012."

Americans for Prosperity, the conservative Super PAC aligned with the Koch Brothers, spent $150,000 on Oct. 31 on canvassing services with Blitz Canvassing and Lincoln Strategy Group in its GOTV efforts to defeat Michelle Nunn, the Democrat running for Senate in Georgia against Republican David Perdue, according to Federal Election Commission data. An additional $14,100 went towards printing for door hangers.

It is unclear whether the two canvassing-services firms are facilitating mobile GOTV, but AFP Director of Public Affairs Levi Russell told Ad Age the group has used mobile "in a big way." The organization's 500 field staffers have used iPad minis loaded with AFP's "proprietary app, which connects with a closed-loop data system," to take surveys used to refine voter targeting, he said in an email.

The DLCC uses the mobile app from Democratic National Committee tech darling NGP VAN -- known as "MiniVAN" in addition to a tool called Organizer. Organizer sometimes involves distributing an actual mobile device to volunteers that's pre-loaded with the information they need.

In Florida, the DLCC has used both mobile tools, but when paid canvassers are part of the crew, Organizer is the mobile tool of choice, in part because the technology enables the organization to track those door-knockers via GPS and time-stamps. Both MiniVAN and Organizer allow the DLCC to access the Democratic National Committee's voter data.

Mobile, of course, comes with its own set of logistical challenges. When a throng of election day volunteers descend during GOTV crunch time, rather than worrying about having enough devices or logins, sometimes campaigners go the paper route, especially if some of canvassers haven't been trained on the technology.

It's a question of, "Do I create a login or do I just hand them a gosh darn packet?" said Michael Moschella, VP of organizing, politics and advocacy at NationBuilder, a tech provider that works with political clients on the right and left whose systems are integrated with Organizer.

Mobile apps help political field operations access the data as well as feed updated information back into a centralized database in a standardized, organized manner. While that can be valuable earlier in a campaign cycle, by election day, it's not always imperative, especially when it comes to submitting new data.

On election day, "You're sending an army out and you don't even care if you get the data back," said Mr. Moschella, adding that the voter data available publicly after the election is what organizations will use to measure success.

And sometimes, technology is clunky and glitches do more harm than good. The Mitt Romney 2012 presidential campaign's election day app, Orca, famously failed.

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