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Friday, October 31, 2014

Big Data Voter Campaigns, but Messages Are Lacking


Modern political campaigns home in on their key voters with drone-like precision, down to the smallest niche, like Prius-driving single women in Northern Virginia who care about energy issues.  They compile hundreds of pieces of data on individuals, from party registration to pet ownership to favorite TV shows.  And they can reach people through Facebook, Pandora, Twitter, YouTube or cable television.

The only problem: They do not have enough messages for them all.

The Big Data era of politics has left some campaigns drowning in their own sophisticated advances.  They simply cannot produce enough new, effective messages to keep up with the surgical targeting that the data and analytics now allow.

“Our ability to target has far outstripped our ability to create,” said Alex Lundry, co-founder of Deep Root Analytics, a Republican media analytics firm.  “We do have too many options and not enough time, and I do think it’s a problem.”

Or, as Joe Rospars, the founder of the Democratic digital agency and technology firm Blue State Digital, put it, “The science is ahead of the art.”  An analytics team can help a campaign make “a much more targeted buy,” he explained, but that alone will not offer a particularly efficient return on investment if the ad is still “just a white guy in a suit.”

Josh Eboch, political director for the campaign of Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, likened the data and tools to an expensive car, and the creative message to the car’s driver: “We’re really at the point where everyone can afford the Ferrari, it’s a question of who’s the better driver,” he said.

Campaigns are often under pressure to keep up with the velocity of the news cycle and produce a rapid digital response for placement online or on social media.  And, with more and better information about their core voters, campaigns and outside groups often find themselves without the time, money or staffing to fully capitalize on all of the different ways they can deliver messages to their newly segmented voting blocs.

“Especially among Republicans, the big data has been built, the pipes have been built, but the creative side hasn’t been fleshed out or budgeted for the campaign,” said Tim O’Toole, co-founder of Poolhouse, a Republican ad firm.  “Anyone can open up iMovie and make something, but the high-level creative ad production has not been baked into these campaigns.”

“It’s very easy to get overwhelmed with all the possibilities you have,” said Alex Kellner, the digital director of Terry McAuliffe’s successful 2013 bid for governor of Virginia and now a director at Bully Pulpit Interactive, a Democratic digital marketing firm.  “More campaigns are moving in the direction of having that freak-out moment for a couple of days and saying, ‘Oh my gosh.  Here’s all we can do.  How can we get it all done?’"  The answer for some campaigns, simply, is that they cannot.

Some platforms are now tailoring their offerings to meet the campaigns wherever they are.  Facebook, for instance, at its most basic level allows campaigns to focus their message on a particular ZIP code or gender, or even a group of voters that “likes” a certain set of Facebook pages — maybe MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and The Nation, or Fox News’s Sean Hannity and Guns & Ammo magazine.

At a more sophisticated level, a campaign can upload its entire voter file to Facebook, and work with one of the site’s data partners to reach only its targets with messages designed specifically for them.

“The approach here from Facebook’s perspective is to offer a menu of options, and campaigns can determine what makes the most sense for them, based on their resources,” said Andy Stone, Facebook’s policy communications manager.

Zac Moffatt, co-founder of Targeted Victory, a Republican technology firm, said he frames the discussion with his clients as “big Internet, small content.”

“We know all of this stuff about voters, but because politics is based on a broadcast model, we shove the same three messages down their throat,” Mr. Moffatt said.

Going forward, and especially in the 2016 presidential cycle, Mr. Moffatt added, the creative content should be specifically geared to both the relevant voter demographic and the platform.  “In the future, all audiences should see different ads — six-second, 15-second, 30-second,” he said.  “The explosion of content will be the biggest game changer.”

Yet campaigns also must guard against producing dozens of different messages for dozens of different demographic groups, simply because they can.

“We always say have that umbrella message, but then supplement it with as many highly targeted messages as you think you can stand, both from a budget standpoint and a philosophical standpoint,” said Mr. Lundry, the co-founder of Deep Root Analytics.

Some larger campaigns have already been able to marry the advances in data and analytics with an equally robust investment in creative content.  The campaign of Mr. Cornyn worked with Facebook to aim Second Amendment ads at self-identified gun-rights supporters, as well as to direct Latino and Vietnamese voters to pro-Cornyn websites, one in Spanish and one in Vietnamese, created specifically for each group.

Mr. Kellner said that from early on, the McAuliffe campaign invested heavily in both the data and the creative sides to ensure it could target key voters with specialized messages. Over the course of the campaign, he said, it reached out to 18 to 20 targeted voter groups, with nearly 4,000 Facebook ads, more than 300 banner display ads, and roughly three dozen different pre-roll ads — the ads seen before a video plays — on television and online.  “It certainly was a lot,” he said, “but it was also targeted.”  Still, he added, “Probably not every campaign will need 4,000 pieces of creative.  I think what’s important is not trying to find every small segment, but it’s ranking the segments where you can have the biggest effect and then focusing on them.”

Mark Skidmore, partner and chief strategist at Bully Pulpit Interactive, said campaigns face three main challenges: segments (“There’s infinite ways we can segment and target audiences”), formats (a wide range of formats, like video, audio and text, across a wide range of platforms, like Google, Facebook and Pandora) and context (“If I’m on Facebook, I’m in a very different state of mind than if I’m on Twitter searching for news”).

A smart campaign, he said, needs to not only tailor its message for each audience, but also make sure its creative content works best for that particular medium.  “On Facebook, the lead-in might be something fun and appealing, like ‘Let’s be more than friends, sign up and vote.’ On Twitter, it might be something like, ‘Retweet this but also go vote,’ ” he said.

Sometimes the best message is “Stop reading this and go vote.”










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Thursday, October 30, 2014

New York Ballots Offer Voters Startlingly Little Choice


The strength of a democratic government is in its citizens' ability to choose their representatives.  But if the choices are limited, is the process truly democratic?

On Election Day, more than a third of all races for seats in the New York State Legislature, 74 out of 213, feature a candidate running unopposed.  The same holds true when you zoom in on New York City, where 21 of 63 races are uncontested.

Gotham Gazette spoke with experts seeking answers as to why such a phenomenon exists and what can be done to make New York elections more competitive.  The theory goes, of course, that more competition for office moves candidates to further engage with voters, explain specific policy positions, and remain more accountable to constituents if victorious.

Along with its partner for this project, City Limits, Gotham Gazette also spoke with New Yorkers in several sections of the city where voters will not have candidate choice on Election Day.

Voter perspective
In a section of Astoria, Queens that is part of Senate District 13 and Assembly District 36, both feature one-candidate races, incumbent Democrats Jose Peralta in the Senate and Aravella Simotas in the Assembly.  Residents of the neighborhood expressed disappointment in the situation.  "I don't think this is a democratic way," said Hector Algarroba.  "There hasn't been a lot of campaigning because of that reason. Since they don't need to campaign, they don't need to spend the money in advertisement."

Another resident, Yannis Bacalis, a 26-year-old master's student, said there is a lack of a personal touch in the campaigning.  "I would like to see a nominee coming to Astoria, rather than sending flyers and ads on the news.  I would like to know why I should be motivated to vote for him or her.  So it's lack of PR and human relations basically," he said.

Incumbent Advantage
In a state with no term limits for state-wide or state legislative offices, incumbent candidates are nearly impossible to beat.  Of course, they can't be beaten if they aren't even opposed.  In New York City alone, two-thirds of incumbents in the September primary elections did not face an opponent.

Incumbents enjoy strong name recognition, and can mobilize extensive resources, chiefly financial, to solidify their position.  It is an uphill task for any challenger to enter the ring.  Good government advocates, political operatives, and political scientists seem to agree on the reasons that so many races are run unopposed: imbalanced campaign financing, unchecked gerrymandering, and the absence of term limits.

Money Matters
"Either one party is so dominant in a district that it discourages opposition, or the incumbent has acquired so many resources that it's daunting for opponents to run," said Gerald Benjamin, director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz.  "Resource gathering has more to do with discouraging competition than actually campaigning."

Benjamin seems to hit at the heart of the issue.  Opposition can be deterred before it even becomes a reality.  Uncontested races, says NYPIRG research coordinator Bill Mahoney, are "partially from the natural partisan divisions of New York State.  In other cases the races are made unnaturally uncompetitive when a company lends hundreds of thousands of dollars to a candidate.  Some candidates are deterred at the realities of that."

The phenomenon is one that has not gone unrecognized, particularly in New York City where public financing rules can make for a more equitable distribution of campaign resources and more competition in races for municipal office, though incumbency still almost always prevails.

"Certainly, incumbents have the access to this institutional money," said Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs, New York City Campaign Finance Board (NYCCFB). "Political committees, labor organizations, lobbyists -- those groups are looking at incumbents, but challengers rarely have access to those big contributors."

The collection of resources and their utilization seem to be the chief factors in deciding candidates for seats.  "We have to spend our resources carefully," said David Laska, communications director, New York Republican State Committee.  "Every County Chair has to decide where resources are best spent," he said, asserting that just as there are seats where Republicans have not put up a candidate, Democrats have also failed to run in certain Upstate districts.

Kenneth Sherrill, professor emeritus of the Political Science Department at Hunter College, CUNY, cut exactly to that chase: "No one wants to spend money on a race they know they're going to lose."

Carving Out Wins
Redistricting has been one of the prominent issues of this year's election with a ballot proposal ("Prop 1") that offers voters a chance to approve redistricting reform.  Advocates are split about the promise that Prop 1 holds for large-scale reform, but all agree that so-called gerrymandering is anti-democratic.

I will be voting NO on this proposition.&nbsdp; It is not independent and I would rather start from scratch then accept a phony redistricting commission picked by the state legislature and future candidates.

Districts have historically been drawn by sitting legislators to advantage incumbents.  The carefully-crafted district lines allow for skewed voter registration balance, one of the bricks in the foundation of incumbency and one that all but eliminates competition.

Reinvent Albany's Kaehny said, "There are fewer contested districts because of gerrymandering working for incumbents.  Over time it is not a surprise that they have so many built-in advantages.  The fact that the State Senate has an agreement to effectively have a peace treaty of sorts and the governor has not done anything to change the gerrymandering proves that we have an incumbency-protection plan."

In fact, the trend appears to be worsening.  According to a new report by good government group Citizens Union, released on October 29, the percentage of incumbent state legislators running unopposed was 28% in 2012 and is now 38% in 2014.

The redistricting of the state, often into bizarrely drawn districts, by those in power creates niches of concentrated supporters and helps win seats in general elections.  "When you look at general election races in particular, when you have a system when the majority party is drawing lines favoring one party over another, the seats are not competitive," said Rachael Fauss, director of public policy at Citizens Union.

Limits and Signatures
Incumbents have several significant advantages, among them being the fact that there are no limits on the number of terms they can serve.  And for challengers who are new to the system, simply entering the fray is fraught with technicalities that are hard to navigate, particularly obtaining ballot signatures.

"Election law in New York State is very onerous," said Daniel Isaacs, chair of the New York Republican County Committee.  "I think it's more so an uphill climb in challenging an incumbent.  But the arduous process of getting on the ballot is also taken into account.  It definitely deters candidates."

Jerry Skurnik, founder of Prime New York, a political consultancy firm, said "It is true that in some states it's easier to get on the ballot than New York.  If you needed less signatures there probably would be more candidates running in districts."

Kaehny concedes that these "terrible rules" need to be fixed but doubts whether they play a big role in the number of uncontested races.

The death of local political clubs, if those clubs are indeed withering, may actually remove one advantage incumbents often have: club mobilization for gathering ballot signatures.  Old-school political clubs are very often the mechanism by which incumbents easily attain more than enough signatures to make the ballot each election cycle.

Competitive spirit lacking?
Uncontested elections relate closely to another common New York phenomenon: elections so one-sided that they are "contests" in name only.  The same factors foster both problems, and the latter can lead to the former, it has in Staten Island's 62nd Assembly district.  A solidly Republican district, the seat was open in 2012 when Republican Lou Tobacco departed, so Democrat Anthony Mascolo made a bid to defeat GOP nominee Joseph Borelli.  The Republican romped to a 69-31 victory, and this year Mascolo didn't even think of challenging the incumbent.

Cookie cutter solutions?
Where these different experts and analysts stand divided is the solution to the systemic problems in New York's electoral process that create such limited choice in so many districts.

New York City's Campaign Finance Board and many others see the city's system as a model for publicly matching small contributions to enable more competition in the State Legislature.

"There are lot of different proposals for reform, but what I think works best is at the city level," said Friedman of the NYCCFB.  "That matching of funds ensures candidates can raise small contributions from neighbors and have resources to run a viable campaign against incumbents.  Incumbents have been beaten in city races because the resources are available for candidates that have significant neighborhood support."

In 2013, New York City saw perhaps its most competitive, democratic election cycle since 2001.  More than two-thirds of the total amount of individual contributions collected by candidates came from residents that contributed $175 or less.  The system provides incentive for candidates to reach more voters.  And for more people to run.  Because New York City is so heavily Democratic, this often manifests itself in party primaries, but to an extent that does not happen in races for state legislature.  While the public campaign finance system is part of this trend, term limits also plays a key factor.  Nevertheless, in the 2013 race for City Council in the 7th District, the eventual winner, now Council Member Mark Levine, faced nine opponents in the primary.  Seven candidates battled it out in the 42nd District primary before Inez Barron won.  In District 48, Chaim Deutsch won in a tight contest of five candidates.

Prime New York's Skurnik said public financing can help.  "Candidates do feel they don't have to spend so much time raising money and they can spend time on the issues," he said, although with one caveat.  "It definitely is increasing the amount of candidates in the primaries to create seriously contested primaries, but less so in the general election."

Skurnik's point again returns the conversation to the issue of unbalanced party registration, New York City is heavily Democratic with an approximate registered voter ration of 6 to 1 Democrat to Republican.

But no one mentions the over 8 million registered voters, independents and minor parties, who cannot take part in New York's closed primaries.

With reforms to campaign finance and term limits, long-standing incumbents are more likely to be pressed on residing issues by unlikely opponents instead of riding out an uncontested race.

"The only way these guys leave Albany is either in handcuffs or on a stretcher.  Term limits and public financing will change that," said Daniel Isaacs.

His colleague at the state level, Laska, added, "Term limits are a good thing.  New Yorkers would like to see fewer career politicians and more citizen legislators."

Finally, many agree that, a true, non-partisan independent redistricting would be a key reform to fostering more competitive, democratic elections.  Disallowing incumbents sway over swathes of the state comprised largely of their supporters or party affiliates would be a major step forward, advocates agree.

A voter said, "I was planning on voting, but it's not like I have a choice.  I haven't seen a lot of commercials or campaign events either now that you mention it," he added.  "I didn't think about it before, but of course if you don't have an opponent, you don't need a campaign, do you? This is just wrong."










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Voting Methods and Election Integrity Symposium




The Voting Methods & Election Integrity Symposium will take place at Infinity Park Cherry Creek Room in Glendale, CO on Saturday, November 15th from 9AM-4PM.  The event is hosted by the Free and Equal Elections Foundation and co-sponsored by organizations such as Fair Elections for Colorado, FairVote, and Ballot Access News.

In order to find meaningful reforms to voting and electoral systems, the symposium will explore voting methods such as approval voting, instant runoff, proportional representation, and more, as well as issues of election integrity, such as closed-source electronic voting machines, the Electoral College, gerrymandering, Top Two primary systems, and more.  Many Americans are discouraged from voting for their candidate of choice for many reasons, one of which is the current system of single-winner plurality voting, as well as concerns over the integrity of the elections themselves.  The goal is to directly challenge the electoral status-quo by empowering voters and candidates alike.

Many amazing panelists are lining up to help propose solutions for our voting and elections systems, including FairVote’s Rob Richie (via Skype), Aaron Hamlin of the Center for Election Science, Bill Redpath of the Libertarian Party, and Richard Winger, editor of Ballot Access News and advisory board member of Free and Equal.

The event will be live-streamed on the Free and Equal Network.

The details are as follows:

Who: Rob Richie (FairVote, via Skype), Richard Winger (Ballot Access News, Free and Equal), Bill Redpath (Libertarian Party), Aaron Hamlin (Center for Election Science).

What: Voting Methods & Election Integrity Symposium

Where: Infinity Park Events Center (Cherry Creek Room), 4400 E Kentucky Ave, Glendale, CO

When: November 15th – Voting Methods Panel from 9-12PM, Lunch 12-1PM, Election Integrity Panel from 1-4PM.

Why: To share experienced knowledge of voting methods and foster a progressive approach to voting and electoral systems.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Voter-Roll Purge Problems


Election officials in 27 states, most of them Republicans, have launched a program that threatens a massive purge of voters from the rolls.  Millions, especially black, Hispanic and Asian-American voters, are at risk.  Already, tens of thousands have been removed in at least one battleground state, and the numbers are expected to climb.

At the heart of this voter-roll scrub is the Interstate Crosscheck program, which has generated a master list of nearly 7 million names.  Officials say that these names represent legions of fraudsters who are not only registered but have actually voted in two or more states in the same election, a felony punishable by 2 to 10 years in prison.

There are 6,951,484 names on the target list of the 28 states in the Crosscheck group; each of them represents a suspected double voter whose registration has now become subject to challenge and removal.  According to a 2013 presentation to the National Association of State Election Directors, the program is a highly sophisticated voter-fraud-detection system.  The program is suppose to match the following criteria: first, last and middle name or initial; date of birth; suffixes; and Social Security number, or at least its last four digits.

In Virginia alone, more than 40,000 have already been flagged as ineligible to vote, thanks to Crosscheck.

The thing is, they aren't actually trying to accurately match purported two-state voters.  People with different Social Security numbers, and/or different middle names are being accused of being the same person.

A further detail check found 23% of the names on the Crosscheck list have non-matching middle names.  In other words, they are two entirely different people.

We need independent commissions to audit these types of programs before any actions are taken.  We also need to allow a selected voter to challenge the purge.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Maryland Non-Citizens Voting Problem


An election integrity watchdog group is suing the state of Maryland, alleging that it has discovered massive and ongoing fraudulent voting by non-U.S. citizens in one county.  But because of the way that the non-citizens are able to cast votes in elections, the fraud is likely happening in every single county and subdivision across the state.  The group believes that the illegal voting has been happening for years.

The group, Virginia Voters Alliance, says that it compared how voters in Frederick County filled out jury duty statements compared with their voting records.  The group’s investigation found that thousands of people in Frederick County who stated that they are not U.S. citizens on jury duty forms went on to cast votes in elections. Either they failed to tell the truth when they were summoned for jury duty, or they cast illegal votes.  Both are crimes. The same group previously found that about 40,000 people are registered to vote in both Virginia and Maryland.  One in seven Maryland residents are non-U.S. citizens.

Maryland state law makes it easier for non-citizens, both those present legally and those in the country against the law, to vote.  Maryland issues drivers licenses to legal and illegal aliens.  Driver’s licenses in turn make it easier under the Motor Voter law to register to vote.

The group filed suit in Baltimore’s U.S. District Court. They are suing the Frederick County Board of Elections and the Maryland State Board of Elections.

The purpose of the lawsuit is to mandate those responsible for the administration of the election process will remove the non-citizens from the final voting count.

The purpose of the investigation by the special prosecutor is to penetrate more deeply statewide and determine why this fraud or any other related violation was allowed to occur.

The purpose of new legislation is to plug the massive loophole in current law which permitted these fraudulent practices to take place.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Racially Discriminatory Effects of Provisional Ballots




The Center for American Progress report, “Uncounted Votes: The Racially Discriminatory Effects of Provisional Ballots,” is a first-of-its-kind analysis of 2012 election data identifying states where the usage of provisional ballots directly correlated with communities of color and foreign language speaking populations.  After looking at all 50 states, the reports identifies 16 states where there is a statistically significant positive relationship between provisional ballots cast and counties with higher minority populations.

What does this mean? It means that it in a good portion of the country during the 2012 election, minority communities were more likely to have to cast provisional ballots.  Nearly 25 percent of the more than 2.7 million provisional ballots cast that year were outright rejected, meaning more than 500,000 voters did not have their voices heard.  Rejections happen for many reasons, including cumbersome voter registration procedures, restrictive voting laws, poorly maintained voter lists, election office mismanagement, and voter error.

The use of provisional ballots often reflects other problems in the election administration process, though not always.  In some case, like when Hurricane Sandy displaced voters in New York and New Jersey, provisional ballots can be used as a fail-safe.  However, in some situations, they appear to be a used in place of effective election administration.  For instance, Philadelphia reported a large amount of provisional ballots cast in 2012 because of significant election administration errors, numerous polling locations did not have accurate polling books.  And that disproportionately affected minority voters.

What can be done to improve a system that in some cases appears to have racially discriminatory effects?  Because registration issues are such a big part of why provisional ballots are issued in the first place, the biggest thing that states or the federal government can do is to modernize voter registration.  That could mean making registration permanent, regardless of where voters move.  It could mean doing what a number of states have already done: allow same-day and online registration, which would dramatically reduce the need for provisional ballots because voters would have immediate solutions to most issues.  Online registration would also help cut down on administrative errors associated with the paper registration system and make updating records easier, but has the problem of verifying the voter is eligible before they vote.

Elections need to be free, fair, and accessible for all eligible voters.

When there is evidence, like CAP’s new report lays out, that they are not due to potentially discriminatory aspects of voting laws and election administration, then legal experts and policy makers must take action to reform the process and make sure all voices can be heard.

CLICK HERE to download the PDF's of the report.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Best Benefit of Early Voting


Searching for peace, quiet and tranquility this election season?  Vote early.  Only then will the robocalls, emails, door knocks, online ads and social media pitches stop.  Well, most of them.

Here’s why: Early ballots are noted in voter files, which both parties use to micro-target advertising messages for websites, emails, set-top cable boxes and satellite dishes.

NGP VAN, the technology firm hired by the Democratic National Committee, pulls data almost daily, and early voters are automatically dropped out of canvassing and phone-bank lists.  The data is also used in computing voter “scores” that dictate other messaging decisions, including targeted advertisements.

The Republican National Committee removes early voters from get-out-the-vote efforts.  The National Republican Congressional Committee will also pull back on targeted advertisements for those who have voted early.  Targeted Victory, the Republican technology firm, offers clients a self-service system to automatically exclude those who have voted.  That “saves money that would otherwise be wasted on someone who has already cast a vote,” the company says.

Voting early won’t stop ads on broadcast television or fund-raising emails.  While you can vote only once, you can donate, within limits, often.










NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote!

Michael H. Drucker
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