As Politicos Race to Match Voter Data to E-mail Data, Reactions Vary

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Long before CAN-SPAM legislation was enacted in 2003, sending email to people who hadn’t opted-in to receive it was already taboo among respectable commercial marketers. Not so for political campaigners.

Not only is the sending of unsolicited emails legal under CAN-SPAM, it’s also an accepted practice, with none of the ethical baggage that spamming carries in the private sector. In such a climate, it’s no wonder more and more political campaigners are taking advantage of services that append e-mail addresses to voter data.

In recent weeks, “There’s been a swell” of interest in Political Media’s voter file email appending services, observed the Web consulting firm’s president, Larry Ward. This seems to be what most firms offering such services are experiencing right about now. So, as campaigns put their data houses in order for the ’06 elections, voters can expect more messages in their inboxes from local and statewide candidates, political action committees and advocacy groups, whether or not they gave them their email addresses.

Political Media offers its clients data representing registration information from every U.S. state from either 2004, 2005 or 2006 voter files. Online political consulting outfit Advocacy, Inc. provides its left-leaning clients with a searchable nationwide voter file database encompassing 165 million records which includes about 25 million email addresses, according to Maggie Duncan, Advocacy, Inc.’s assistant director of client relations.

It all starts with voter files. Many campaigns compile their own voter registration data by obtaining publicly-accessible records from local governments, while others purchase lists from data vendors that may also provide email matching, or appending, services. Because these data also are used for phone and direct mail communications, explained Aaron Pickrell, chief operating officer at DCS Online Communications, most campaigners already have that list in hand. DCS is an online political campaign consultancy that does email appending.

Those familiar with voter file appending peg average match rates at anywhere from 10 to 30 percent. E-mail appending providers typically charge only for files that actually come up with email matches, and may remove email addresses that bounce before charging clients. Costs are usually about $0.10 to $0.15 per matched file.

Compiling voter file data is a chore since each local and state government has its own unique way of organizing its public records information. Then there’s the so-called rot rate. Most agree that voter file data can go stale in a matter of months due to people moving or dying.

Despite all these deterrents, campaigners and political office holders using email for constituent outreach are gravitating towards email appending because sending email is relatively inexpensive compared to direct mail, TV or radio. It can also be much more targeted, enabling campaigns to hit all voters within a particular district, or restrict email messaging only to Democrats who have voted in the last three primaries within a precinct, for instance.

In addition, email appended voter files can be paired with demographic data from commercial data suppliers for even more refined targeting, making email communications far more direct than regional TV or radio spots that often intercept audiences far beyond the intended voting districts.

But despite these capabilities, email appending services aren’t universally popular among politicos. Kari Chisholm, president of Internet political strategy firm Mandate Media is getting lots of calls from Capitol Hill staffers who want to “pull the trigger” on voter file matched email campaigns. “It is clear to me that someone or perhaps a lot of ‘somebodies’ are hawking this snake oil all over the halls of Congress,” commented Chisholm, who calls sending such emails “unethical.” He believes they don’t work because, if perceived as spam by recipients and tagged as such, they can trigger ISP spam blocking systems.

Many campaign consultants cite little concern from clients regarding spam and privacy issues. Still, others share Chisolm’s views. “Nobody wants to be the first candidate who gets savaged in public opinion and the media for doing something like that,” stated Mike Turk, former e-campaign director for the Bush/Cheney ’04 presidential campaign. According to Turk, the Bush/Cheney ’04 campaign “very specifically did not” append emails to voter files, sticking strictly to organically-grown lists.

Teney Takahashi, market analyst for The Radicati Group, a research firm that studies email, suggested in an email to ClickZ News, “…generally a greater number of people are likely to be interested in ‘political spam’ rather than commercial spam, particularly if these messages are targeted with specific voter information.”

Regardless of the fact that sending unsolicited political emails is legal under CAN-SPAM legislation, “This is not a legal question, but it is a political question,” suggested Jonah Seiger, managing partner at interactive media consulting firm Connections Media. “In that context,” he added, “I say be cautious.”

The arguments on either side will be moot in coming years. Local and state governments including Alaska, Rhode Island, Oregon, Iowa and Orange County, CA have already added optional email address fields to voter registration forms, meaning appending services will no longer be necessary.

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