Getting a list of the registered voters in your district is one of the essential things that every political campaign needs to do. Without a voter file, you can't target the right voters.
There are a variety of options of where to obtain a voter roll, including your city/county/state government or a commercial data vendor.
Regardless of where you get the data from, be sure to request the voting history for each registered voter for at least the last three comparable elections. For instance, if you are running for city council in 2019 and elections for this office are held every two years, you would want the voter history data for 2017, 2015, and 2013. Although these records don't tell you how a voter voted--the ballot is secret after all--this information is vital in determining which registered voters actually vote. That's especially important since only roughly 40% of registered voters vote in mid-term elections (e.g. 2018) and the turnout is even lower for primaries, special elections, and odd-year municipal elections. For instance, turnout of 20% or less is not usual for local elections.
Board of Elections Voter Data
Many candidates who are running for local office may think of going to the government entity that manages voter registration and elections in their jurisdiction. Whether it's the city clerk, Secretary of State, or county Board of Elections, these government agencies are usually required to make voter information available to political campaigns, usually for a small fee.
The file is usually low cost; some agencies charge as little as $2, although $25-$100 is more typical.
It's usually fairly easy to get a copy of the voter file, so long as you are able to go in person during business hours to request and pick up the file.
This is usually the most up-to-date file option since these government entities maintain the official voter lists. Most jurisdictions will update the voter list once a month to reflect new registrations and removal of voters who moved away or died, although the frequency of updates varies by jurisdiction.
You may receive a physical CD with the data on it, so you'll need a CD-drive on your computer to read it.
The files may be in a format that is difficult to work with or analyze, such as a PDF. Alternately, if an Excel file is provided, it may contain so much data that you can't work with it in Excel, as the software has a maximum limit on the number of rows of data. Older versions of Excel have a maximum of 65,536 rows; if you see this exact number of rows in the file you should check to make sure that it is the full data set and that it was not truncated by Excel.
Some useful types of data may not be included, such as voter gender, date of birth, or voting history. Additionally, some jurisdictions do not collect phone numbers as part of voter registration or may not release voter phone numbers to candidates. Be sure to check the file before you leave the Board of Elections office to ensure that it contains all of the information you requested. Frequently some requested field is left out.
This may be your best option if you don't have free or subsidized access to VAN (see the next section) and you need to get the file fast.
VAN (aka VoteBuilder)
VAN is a voter data service available only to Democratic candidates. Access to the platform is controlled by your state's Democratic Party.
Voter information is standardized and contains all of the fields of information that a campaign may need, including voter phone numbers. Plus the data is automatically updated periodically.
Some state parties allow candidates to access proprietary data, such as predictive modeling scores about voters' likelihood of voting for Democrats. Not all states, however, allow this information to be shared with candidates.
The VoteBuilder platform provides tools to search and filter the voter list, so it's possible to create a highly customized list of voters to target.
Because each state party controls access to VAN, they can decide which candidates get access. So if you are running for a non-partisan office, you may not be able to get access. Moreover, there have been cases reported in the media of Democratic candidates being denied access to VAN by their state party.
The price for VAN access varies dramatically from state to state. In some states, access to VAN is highly subsidized by the state party, but in other states, it can cost thousands of dollars--far exceeding the budget for small campaigns.
Lastly, VoteBuilder is a powerful platform. Because it can do so much, there is a learning curve. Many users report needing significant training before they can use it on their own.
This may be your best option for voter data if you have free or subsidized access to VAN through your state Democratic party. (Note: you don't have to use VoteBuilder to manage your canvassing and phone banking operations. You can export the voter data into another platform like Victory Guide to run your campaign.)
NationBuilder offers a free option for any candidate, elected official, or political advocacy organization to get a voter file.
It's free and convenient! You can request your file online by filling out a short form and receive a digital copy of the voter file in .csv format.
It takes about a week to receive your file.
You can only get one voter file per primary and general election cycle. You cannot receive any subsequent voter updates, such as newly registered voters.
In a handful of cases, we've seen voter files that were missing the most recent election cycle. In most cases, however, the files are reasonably up to date.
This may be your best option if NationBuilder can provide you with an up-to-date voter file and you don't mind waiting a week.
Several commercial data vendors offer voter data for a modest fee. TargetSmart, L2, and Catalist are a few examples of these firms.
The data is standardized, complete, and relatively up to date.
These vendors often have more up to date phone numbers for voters, including cell phone numbers. It's also possible to purchase only phone numbers and/or email addresses to supplement the voter file that you obtained from another source.
Although vendors only charge a few cents per voter record, these costs can add up quickly, even for a small campaign.
Getting access to some of these commercial vendors can be difficult for individual candidates. (Victory Guide has standing contracts in place with several vendors and can procure data on your behalf, thereby cutting out any potential frustrations for you.)
This may be your best option if you want the most accurate phone numbers for voters and don't mind paying extra to get them.
Next Steps with Your Voter Data
Once you have a voter file, you need a way for your campaign to identify and reach your target voters. Victory Guide is a one-stop-shop for Democratic, progressive, and left-of-center candidates to run winning campaigns for local, county, or state legislative office.
The Victory Guide mobile app to make voter outreach easy through door knocking and phone banking. The app shows exactly what doors to knock and which voters to talk to, and allows you to take notes on each conversation.
Notably, Victory Guide works with all of the above data sources. As a new customer with Victory Guide, we take care of importing your voter file into our system and creating a target universe of voters who meet your specifications, such as a certain party affiliations or voting frequency. We then map all of that data into our canvassing app so that you can easily knock on the doors of your target voters. You can monitor your voter outreach progress from your campaign's dashboard.
Schedule your personal demo of Victory Guide.