WASHINGTON, February 27, 2014 – James O’Keefe’s latest trip into the no-man’s-land between journalism and activism exposes Texas Democrats using voter registration drives to collect data for upcoming campaigns. It also shows just how desperate and critical the race for voter data has become.
O’Keefe’s video, in the spirit of his previous hidden-camera exposés of political corruption, follows Jennifer Longoria, an organizer for the pro-Wendy Davis Battleground Texas, as she discusses the organization’s system of registering voters and copying their registration information for future outreach. “Data collection is key,” Longoria proclaims to the person recording her.
As O’Keefe points out, it is also illegal, at least the way Longoria was allegedly doing it. Information on voter registration forms is considered confidential when submitted. Yet with either ignorance of or indifference to the law — or possibly a mixture of both — Longoria gleefully describes how the names, addresses, and numbers from the form are transferred to Battleground Texas’s database.
Longoria’s specific activity may be found illegal after an investigation. Data collection is indeed key for campaigns. That’s why issue groups should be monitoring each interaction with a voter or potential voter, even with the election months away. And the old-fashioned canvass and voter registration drive is still among the most important of those interactions.
Candidates, parties, and their proxies who register new voters provide more than simple ballot access; they act as concierges for new entrants into the political process. For the people she registers, Longoria can provide context and impetus about the election. As battle lines are drawn between impersonal candidates, voters who are still making up their minds will look to those closest to them.
The friendly, smiling, and familiar face who canvassed a voter’s neighborhood can carry more credibility than the paid and earned media that create the broader messages of an election. Longoria knows this. In the video, she claims a newly registered voter has just a 15 percent chance of voting without any further prompting, but just one piece of campaign communication raises that to 60 percent. She doesn’t cite her source, but the numbers are less relevant than the concept.
Grassroots voter contact and outreach is always important, but it’s absolutely critical for newcomers. By swiping the contact information from fresh voter registration cards, Battleground Texas executes a good idea backward.
The most complete campaign canvasses include a registration component already, whether it happens door-to-door, phone-to-phone, or person-to-person with clipboard or smartphone in hand. After capturing contact information and determining where each voter stands, campaign workers offer each contact a chance to register, if they aren’t already.
Under that more traditional method, the data collection is clear and honest political organizing. For campaigns that know what they’re doing, it kicks off a chain of follow-up and engagement that lasts through Election Day. Naturally, Battleground Texas would likely find it tougher to recruit that way. Voter registration seems more civic-minded than overt campaigning on behalf of one side or another, so citizens are more likely to participate. That’s probably why Battleground Texas initiated their outreach under the guise of voter registration in the first place.
The same theory drives smart campaigns to monitor things like social media data. The organic, publicly available statements people make can give insights to their political leanings and their emotional flash points. As with voter data, there are legal and illegal ways to collect this information.
Yet however it happens, outreach and follow-up are critical to successful data-driven, grassroots efforts. Even with Election Day eight months down the road, the names and contact information of potential voters are a golden resource.
O’Keefe’s cameras may have caught Battleground Texas getting sloppy with campaign laws, but at least their campaign strategy is solid.