Counting votes

My spouse shared with me an article about how President Obama could win re-election. I’m not going to get into presidential politics, but reading the latest made me long for a different type of campaigning.

When I first became involved in local politics, I was young (in my 20s) and still more naïve. I didn’t really have a clue how to get people to vote in an upcoming local election. (Yes, I worked them all – City, County, School, State and National.) I worked in local politics, moving from a block organizer to a precinct organizer to a ward organizer and eventually to Chair in the City Democratic Party. At each phase of this trajectory, I learned more about how to work with others toward a common goal.

Precinct organization

Ann Arbor is divided into five wards; each ward includes a section of the downtown. This is all in the charter (pie-shaped wedges, honest). But each ward is further divided into precincts, and when I became involved, each precinct was further divided – into blocks, or some other subset. The folks who’d been active during the last decade or more kept records of residents on index cards. (Eunice Burns, former First Ward Council member, remembers these days.) To keep those records, it was necessary to canvass – knocking on doors, asking folks for their political preferences, and then getting their phone numbers for the index cards.

Collecting data

Each index card looked something like this:

Name: (adults listed on the same line)



Notes: (elections someone voted in, whether someone is strong or weak Democrat, issues of concern)

Getting this information required constant work by precinct workers. Volunteers would go door-to-door in the months without an election, and learn whether someone had moved, married, or died. Each resident was asked if he/she was registered to vote, and names were later checked off against a list of known voters. Each resident was asked about party preference: “are you a Democrat, Republican or Independent? If an Independent, are you more likely to vote Democratic or Republican?”

(This is all pre-computer, when we were still using stone tablets and chisels, mind, but even primitive tools work.)

I was taught to remain ignorant of whether someone was already on my list, and to ask anyway. I was told that people don’t always mind sharing information, but they don’t like to think that governments or political parties know anything about how they will vote.

And then, come time for the election, I’d be given a list of people to call, reminding them to vote. In those days (not only pre-computer, but pre-answering machine and pre-voice mail!) one called in the evening in order to catch a resident home.

Get out the Vote and Election Day

Imagine the task of a precinct organization. To run a precinct (I lived in the Old West Side at this point), I needed 4 or 5 helpers. Each of those helpers did everything from canvassing to passing out literature, to making reminder phone calls and working the polls on Election Day. To get those helpers, I was responsible for finding and recruiting reliable political workers and getting them to continue volunteering.

Prior to the election, each of us would take a subsection of the precinct and walk it. We’d drop political literature at the door; and we’d keep a record of which houses had become empty and which mailboxes had new names – using the information that the ward chair kept on those index cards.

On the weekend before the election (and it didn’t matter whether it was a primary, and general, or a school board election, we worked them all) I’d be given lists of folks to call and remind about the election.

On Election Day, I’d find 2 or more people who could be challengers. These challengers would sit at the polling site all day, from 7 am to 8 pm, and they’d track who voted. In the afternoon, other volunteers would take the lists, compare against the records kept on those index cards, and start calling the known Democrats who hadn’t yet voted.

After the election, everyone active in the City Party would talk about which organizations were effective, and what could be done to make them more effective.

Organization and hierarchy

I remember how I became active in the Party. Someone came to my door and asked me about my party affiliation. I said I was an Independent. That person then asked whether I usually voted Democratic or Republican. I clearly remember stating “Oh, I never vote for Republicans.” This was in the mid ’70s, and the Human Rights Party still ran candidates for local office. And I had voted for one Republican – Bill Milliken. He was pro-choice, while the Democrat was not. But generally I wouldn’t vote for a Republican. (There are still a few Milliken Republicans around. Too bad there aren’t enough to make a difference.)

After acknowledging my political leanings, I agreed to help pass out lit. Not immediately, of course, but fairly soon thereafter. And then that precinct organizer invited me to a precinct meeting, where I met neighbors who shared my views. One of these neighbors asked me to volunteer at the school – and soon I was both precinct chair and PTO member.

A word about titles

In the Democratic Party of the ’70s, there were many conversations about titles. Ward Chair, City Party Chair – those were fairly easy. The City Party added more Vice-Chairs for nearly any imaginable role. But Precinct organizers were either Precinct Captains or Precinct Chairs – and the correct title was in dispute. The anti-war faction didn’t want any military-type titles. I called myself a Precinct Chair.

Ward Organization

Becoming a Ward Chair

I went to a Ward meeting, and was asked whether I’d be willing to help work in a precinct. I agreed, and a couple of days later I came home from work to find a box of records on my porch. Those infamous index cards had become my responsibility – and so had the entire Ward. I was appalled and intimidated.

But if the former Ward Chair wasn’t going to help me (he wasn’t), the Vice-Chair for Organization would. I received constant, nagging phone calls, asking who I had to work this precinct or that. I learned to make cold-calls, calling up folks listed as strong Democrats, and asking them to volunteer. I was always surprised when they agreed, but then I had to make certain they did what they’d agreed to do – and fielded more nagging phone calls from the VC for Org, pushing me to keep those volunteers going. If the Precinct Chair flamed out, I had to get volunteers to fill in the gaps and agree to help manage the precinct. I got to know my ward very well.

Converting to computers

I became involved, really involved, in local politics just as computers were becoming a tool for regular people. More than once I took the data from those index cards and entered it into a mainframe computer. To enter it, I had to precisely type a series of codes that didn’t make sense to me. That was how I learned that computers are stupid; unlike people, they don’t know what you mean, only what you say.

Within a couple of years, the data on those index cards was passé. I received computer printouts that included name, address, phone, party ID and voting history for every registered voter in the Ward. By the late 80s, I also received predictive information about how likely any individual was to vote – and vote for a Democrat.

The hardest part of this conversion, for me and for others, was that we learned it wasn’t necessary or desirable to go door-to-door, canvassing constantly. It also became clear that we could target the voters, especially in a primary. If we knew how likely someone was to vote Democratic and vote in a primary, we could focus our activities on those who might be encouraged to vote rather than spending time with those who would hardly ever vote, or those who were reliable.

When it became inefficient to go door-to-door, volunteers began calling residents between elections and asking about their party preferences. Now these canvassers are stymied: more and more people only own cell phones, and those folks can’t easily be canvassed. Predictive polls tend to be based on land-line interviews, although those who poll using cell numbers get a very different result.

Technology leads us in new directions as we – those political types – try to keep in touch with the pulse of the electorate.

And this is where I get to the ‘counting votes’ part.

Today, a candidate runs for office as a Democrat. He or she doesn’t have a ward and precinct organization to provide reliable volunteers. Candidates get those volunteers themselves, by energizing supporters. And energizing supporters sometimes requires taking a polarizing position.

Candidates use computerized lists of ‘persuadable’ voters. They know how many doors they need to knock on in order to reach a certain critical mass of voters. They know, at the precinct level, how many of their (anticipated) voters must show up at the polls on Election Day in order for them to win.

They go door-to-door, but the basic pool of names and addresses is limited to those who are likely to vote Democratic, but not necessarily likely to vote in every election. If there’s a primary, those lists might be further refined to include information that the Michigan Democratic Party has gathered in its efforts to identify voter positions. The candidate can ask the database for a list of Democrats who are concerned about school issues, or emergency financial managers, or the environment. And then the candidate can target just those voters she deems most likely to vote for them in a primary.

Data collecting hasn’t exactly replaced the value of going door-to-door, but it has removed the role of precinct and ward organization. The City Party doesn’t really try to have that level of organization any more, and I’d bet few people are recruited into activism by a neighbor coming by with a clipboard who asks them to volunteer. With all this data available centrally, how much difference does it make that someone knows who the neighbors are, what they are like, and whether they might do more than be polite? For candidates, in the end, the most important thing may be to know, by the numbers, exactly where to go and who to talk with.

No one approaches the unknown resident. From the Obama campaign to the local races, campaigning is geared toward the known, the relatively certain. The challenge of getting people to the poll is reduced; now the effort is to get those who are going anyway to vote for this candidate and not that. It’s frugal, it’s focused, and it’s organized. But it isn’t the way people campaigns even 40 years ago.

All the books on effective, local campaigning emphasize grass roots campaigns (I like this one). But I’m still getting robo-calls from some of those running for election or their supporters. And I’ve thrown away more pieces of same-looking literature than I’ve read.

I went door-to-door this week with a candidate running for a regional office. I introduced him to my neighbors. His task was to make the impression – demonstrate that he knew the office, he knew the duties, and that he could provide the services expected. My task was to greet my neighbors by name, and ask about their spouses, their health, and their interests. Back when I organized a precinct or a ward, this is what I was expected to do – know the people. It’s still what I expect to do, because that knowledge of neighborhoods, neighbors and their issues is at the core of local campaigning. It’s an art as much as it is a tactic.

I hope it’s not an art lost in just counting votes.

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2 Responses to Counting votes

  1. John Briere says:

    Computers change everything. Makes me think about the computerized redistricting and how unfair it seems. I guess the next thing to do is examine likely voters social graphs, find the ones that have the strongest connections, and target them directly on the assumption they have a multiplier effect through influencing their extended networks.

  2. sbriere says:

    Your thoughts on using social graphs are truly prescient. I’d bet that happens in a few years. It is an extension of a cliche – ask a busy (person) to do something, and it will get done. (The theory, it turns out, is that busy people know how to follow through.)
    You may remember those times when I was working all day and on the phone every evening, calling people to get them to volunteer . . .
    Hmm. Social graphs and strong influencers. I DO live in a world someone dreamed up in a science fiction novel.

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