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The Power of Data

Reaching out to every registered voter around you is an inherently intimidating premise. Nebraska has 1.2 million registered voters, give or take, and if you calculated the shifts needed to knock on the door of every single registered voter you’d end up somewhere in the ballpark of 60,000 hours. A year has just under 90,000, and that includes all of the time someone presumably has to sleep and eat and exist outside of voter contact and excluding the time it would take to travel a state that spans more than eight hours long.

The goal, instead of reaching out to all 1.2 million Nebraskans, is to identify which Nebraskans could use an extra nudge the most. That’s where fun things like data tools and the voter file come into play. Then, instead of knocking on every door around you or dialing through a phonebook that likely hasn’t been relevant since 2004, you can use your time and energy wisely.

I, for example, am probably the last person you need to reach out to as a voter if your goal is reaching out to folks who could use voting resources or encouragement to go to the polls. I work for a civic engagement nonprofit, I have a degree in political science, and I’ve voted by mail in every single election since I was eligible. If you knock on my door, I will wish you the best and try to encourage you, but it will be a complete waste of your time.

Using tools like VAN and the voter file and the assortment of other voter contact tools available means that you can narrow your outreach to people who need it. If you’re doing programming for youth, you can narrow it down specifically to people between the ages of 18 - 35 and send them a text message or give them a call. If you want to encourage people to vote who normally don’t, you can see who has voted in the past few elections (and importantly, never who they voted for). The voter file is robust and, to a degree, public information.* 

I’ve also seen campaigns and nonprofits use the voter file but in the least efficient way possible. Instead of using something like VAN which can make phone calls or door knocks user-friendly and easy, the expense or the intimidation factor of tools can leave people turning to a spreadsheet that is, no matter how faithfully maintained, a complete nightmare to navigate. Back in the day, using the voter file could be a painstakingly manual process. Today, we do have tools to make it a lot more painless. MiniVAN maps doors with the intuitiveness of your average GPS, and the lists from the voter file that make up those cute little digital houses are built keeping in mind who needs the outreach the most.

That’s why it’s so important for us as the Nebraska Civic Engagement Table to offer these tools and the training and support needed to be successful with them, and that’s why we will always recommend tailoring your lists to what communities you want to engage with. Study after study has proven the effect of local nonprofits and organizations engaging folks in a year-round culture of civic engagement and building trust in their communities. We are not asking people for one vote two months before an election and then disappearing. We are with our communities, living with our communities, day in and day out – and maintaining these lists and relationships is a key part of keeping that trust.

Data, VAN, targeting—all of these things can sound intimidating if you’ve never worked with them before. But these are the things that will make your life easier, and your work in engaging your community more effective. Instead of reaching out to 1.2 million people in Nebraska, you can make a plan to knock on the doors of people who have been excluded from the political process in a precinct with low turnout. It’s a much better use of your time and resources, and it helps you have more meaningful interactions and build long-lasting power.

Life is much bigger than one election cycle—although sometimes it definitely feels like it is wound in one last sprint right before November—and using data is about using your capacity in the smartest way possible, and keeping your programs as accessible as possible for both your community and your volunteers. 

*Data privacy and safety are also important to us. We know that having your address, phone number, etc., available on request from the Secretary of State’s office doesn’t feel safe for everyone. If you’re in a situation where you’re dealing with stalking, harassment, or domestic violence you can learn more about the Address Confidentiality Program here.

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