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NationBuilder Says, 'The Voter File Was Meant to be Free'

BY Nick Judd | Tuesday, May 17 2011

NationBuilder and a nonpartisan data firm, Political FORCE, announced a partnership yesterday that promises nationwide voter file access to any of their client campaigns that wants it, with far fewer barriers to entry than currently exist for partisan systems.

This comes as the Republican Party comes to grips with aging technological infrastructure it may not have the money to upgrade, as Kate Kaye reports at ClickZ. While candidates and organizations in each state can usually wrangle a copy of a voter list relevant to them, the ability to do sophisticated tracking and sorting of voters in a digital database is an ability closely held by partisan companies tied to each party. Having easier access to voter data would make it easier for campaigns to reach out to voters who might support their cause, either directly, through door-knocking or calls, or by working through organizations in neighborhoods that historically vote in a campaign's direction.

And NationBuilder is not the only company looking at the way large companies with partisan ties seem to have a stranglehold on the best data — but more on that later.

VAN, now NGP VAN, provides data from the Democratic National Committee and Catalist for the left, and the GOP uses Voter Vault, a closely guarded data trove, to provide access to voter data for its candidates. The NationBuilder team will build features around nationwide voter data from 2000-2008, including individual voters and aggregate data about voting precincts, company founder Jim Gilliam wrote to me in an email. They'll offer it to any client using it for a political purpose, regardless of political affiliation. And they'll offer it for cheap.

Gilliam says there will be barriers between users and voter data — the group involved must be using the data for a political purpose, and a human being at NationBuilder has to enable their access.

"We are doing some vetting on it, and making sure people understand what this can be used for so they are not inadvertently breaking the law," Gilliam wrote.

But this makes voter data way more accessible to third parties, small-time candidates, and nonpartisan political groups than it has been before.

It also seems that Gilliam and his team are still sorting through exactly what their own legal obligations are — so while the deal has been struck, there are no features using the voter file yet.

While NationBuilder and Political FORCE are the first nonpartisan next-generation data tool providers I've heard of, they're not the only ones working to disintermediate digital access to voter records. Steven Corey Adler, one of the original co-founders of VAN, is working on a project called rVotes that he's marketing as a direct competitor to Voter Vault. He tells me he gave software licenses to Republican candidates in Rhode Island during the last campaign cycle and is hoping to build up additional market share in the GOP with rVotes, which is available only to Republicans. He sold his share of VAN in 2005, and his agreement with VAN not to work in this sector just expired last year. But he's not getting much pickup — yet.

"I want to be the VoteBuilder of the other side," Adler told me earlier this year, referencing the voter outreach tool VAN provides to Democrats. "But I'm fighting the RNC on that."