Victory Lab

Who Needs ACORN?

Meet the woman signing up Democratic voters more efficiently and effectively than the disgraced organization ever did. 

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Illustration by Rob Donnelly.

Every once in a while, a dog or a dead person gets asked to participate in the democratic process. It always happens the same way: A piece of mail arrives at an address where a pet resides, or where a person once did, with a personalized salutation and information on how to register to vote—and occasionally with an already-completed form ready to be signed and returned to local authorities. Sometimes a dead dog gets asked to register, and this really raises hackles. “I think it’s tampering with our voting system,” a Seattle woman named Brenda Charlston told the Associated Press after her black Labrador Rosie—dead since 1998—received a completed registration form in her name at Charlston’s address this summer. “They’re fishing for votes: That’s how I view it.”

While fishing for dead dogs is typically depicted as one of the cruder approaches in the vote-fraud playbook, it actually reflects perhaps the most analytically sophisticated method for adding sympathetic new voters to a campaign’s rolls. Registration has traditionally been an area of focus for Democratic campaigns: The party’s strongest constituencies, minorities and young voters, are often the most underrepresented at the polls, and federal law treats nonpartisan registration drives as a tax-free expense. Unregistered voters also tend to be clustered geographically in dense areas, like big-city neighborhoods and college towns, where just standing on a busy street corner gives a campaign easy access to unregistered voters who could be pushed to complete a registration form on the spot.

No group mastered the practice of so-called site registration like ACORN, the community-organizing behemoth that was forced out of business in 2010 by the combined efforts of Andrew Breitbart and Glenn Beck to expose its methods and shame its leadership. Indeed, many Democrats had long found their ally’s techniques to be boorish, and occasionally counterproductive. By offering a bounty for each registration collected, ACORN encouraged paid canvassers to submit incomplete, duplicate, and fraudulent forms to election registrars, who often became so overwhelmed that their ability to process legitimate forms was hampered. Few Democrats want to be caught publicly mourning the controversial group’s disappearance. Yet privately many of them note that in this election year, ACORN’s scope and scale have proven irreplaceable, despite efforts to focus the attention of the liberal donor elite on the need to keep signing up new voters.

“It’s a void,” says Tom Lindenfeld, a Democratic field tactician who has specialized in voter-registration drives. “There was an enormous voter-registration surge that was encouraged by the energy of the 2008 campaign. Now the number of outside groups that are helping in that way is far fewer.”

The burden has fallen to the Obama campaign itself, which is intent on changing the electorate in its favor through registration and mobilization. But the reality about the Obama campaign’s registration drives is that they are not necessarily that good at registering new voters for Obama—and they are not even designed to be. It is another organization that appears most able to pick up ACORN’s slack, and fully exploit a civic task for the left’s electoral gain—even if it means inadvertently trying to sign up the occasional dead Labrador.

* * *

On Saturday, June 23, a handful of volunteers arrived in parking lot K of George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. The annual Vietnamese Heritage Festival, a celebration of food and folkloric entertainment known as VietFest, reflects the growing Asian character of the Northern Virginia suburbs, which have swung Democratic in recent years and helped Obama to become the first of his party’s presidential nominees to win the state since 1964. This year’s VietFest was expected to draw over 10,000 attendees. Many of them were anticipated to be either new citizens or recent arrivals to Virginia from elsewhere in the country, so Obama’s local field organizers designated it as a site for a “Day of Action” registering voters.

The presence the Obama volunteers established under a VietFest tent—a fold-out table topped with clipboards bearing government forms—amounts to a familiar tableau. Those wielding the clipboards often appeal to high ideals of citizenship and welcome anybody who wants to take a form: the more voters, their words and posture usually declare, the better. Setting up a table at a community gathering designed to rally residents likely to be underrepresented on the electoral rolls is unquestionably good civics. It is not, however, always good politics.

Registration is a game of margins. Since states typically require those conducting registration drives to return every completed form they collect, there is no ability for a campaign—which has an interest in signing up only those voters who are likely to vote for its candidate—to sort through afterward and pick out the voters who are demographically favorable, or even those who register with the candidate’s own party. Instead, campaigns have tried to increase the likelihood of enrolling sympathetic new voters by administering registration drives in sites with a defined partisan edge. This was the casual math supporting ACORN’s logic in dispatching its canvassers to overwhelmingly Democratic neighborhoods. In a precinct that gave 75 percent of its votes to John Kerry, three out of four new registrants were likely to be Obama supporters. ACORN targeted the locations in that precinct that offered the heaviest foot traffic; with enough volume, the margin in registration rates between the two parties could turn into a significant advantage in total voters.

Much of the Obama campaign’s registration activity sticks to the same sensibility. Local field organizers send volunteers to places where, just by using cultural and demographic shorthand, they’re likely to find favorable margins for the Democrats: a Columbus, Ohio gay-pride festival and the Taos, N.M. farmer’s market; Juneteenth celebrations and African-American barbershops and beauty salons nationwide.

But VietFest doesn’t offer that advantage. According to a 2008 exit poll conducted by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 44 percent of Vietnamese-Americans nationwide registered as Republicans; only 24 percent did so as Democrats. That registration pattern seemed to track with a ballot preference: The Vietnamese were the only Asian ethnic subgroup that voted Republican in 2008, according to the exit poll, going two-to-one for McCain.

In other words, if you had randomly handed a Vietnamese-American a form before 2008, the odds were one-in-four that she would register as a Democrat and one-in-three that she would have cast a ballot for Obama. Even if Virginia’s Vietnamese are twice as likely to be Democrats as the national average—the population is clustered in traditionally conservative areas, like Texas, Louisiana, and California’s Orange County—that still means that an Obama volunteer who registers a VietFest attendee has less than a 50 percent chance of putting a Democrat on the rolls.

* * *

Page Gardner hates those odds. She disdains the way that campaigns that aspire to rigor in testing their television ads or routing the candidate will mindlessly send volunteers to a place where they are likely to help register their opponents’ supporters. Gardner is also the person perhaps most responsible for trying to enroll dead dogs. This is not a coincidence.

Gardner’s Voter Participation Center has pioneered the effort to make registration more scientific, using the analytical advances that have transformed campaigns over the last decade to calibrate the odds of putting friendly voters on the rolls. The group was formed in the wake of the 2000 election as Women’s Voices Women’s Vote, to close what pollsters characterized as the “marriage gap” that had opened up between the two parties. Unmarried women had become one of the most loyal Democratic constituencies, Gardner noted, but also one of the most underrepresented at the polls. She went out and raised some money to launch a registration drive focused on unmarried women.

But unlike African Americans or college students, WVWV targets were not geographically clustered in specific neighborhoods whose sidewalks could be stalked by clipboard-carrying canvassers. Gardner knew she would have to seek them out individually, but it wasn’t obvious how to do that: Databases used by campaigns and parties usually included voters’ ages and flagged them by race, but did not identify their marital status. But Gardner happened to be launching her new group just as the political world was discovering the value of commercial data warehouses initially created for credit agencies and consumer marketing. She bought lists of all voting-age adults and then cross-referenced them with voter-registration rolls: The names that appeared on one and not the other became a potential universe of targets. She then had analysts develop statistical models that mined demographic variables for each woman on that list to predict the likelihood that each was unmarried. Women’s Voices Women’s Vote didn’t have to wait for these voters to come to them. They sent the women on their list a letter.

Volunteers with "Obama for America".
The Obama campaign in 2008 and now in 2012 relies on sheer manpower in voter registration. Is there a better way?

Eric Thayer/Getty Images.

During campaign years, the group issues quarterly mailings.* Each mailing has a randomized experimental design built in, allowing the group to test various ways of packaging a registration form, adjusting everything from cover letter language to envelope typography. By paying the postal service to track which of its forms were sent along to registration authorities, it is possible to determine which packages get the best response. In a 2010 test, for example, WVWV found that Ohio-specific forms sent to targets in that state got returned at a rate 1 percentage point higher than a standardized national alternative. Analysts can also apply statistical models to identify the attributes of those recipients who have been most responsive to each appeal. With time, WVWV learned that those who have recently moved, or just turned 18, are twice as likely to respond to any mailed registration appeal as the broader population.

After the group’s June 2012 mailing, WVWV analysts and designers made 13 improvements to the way it builds a list of new targets.* Each was designed to slightly increase the odds of response, and thus lower the cost of a registering a voter. A decade of such tests and tweaks has cut the price of a new registration more than half from the $15 that Gardner estimated it cost a decade ago to administer traditional site-based programs using paid canvassers. “We have kept driving the cost of registering a person down cycle after cycle,” she says. “Our lists are getting better, our models are getting better, our targeting is getting better.” With that data-centric approach came something unimaginable at the card table: the ability to put on the rolls only those people you wanted to see cast a ballot.*

As ACORN became the most visible practitioner of site-based registration drives, WVWV perfected a more refined régime largely out of public view. When the group did surface to broader attention, it was usually because one of its registration packages had been addressed to someone who should not have gotten it: a corpse, a pet, or someone already registered. The explanations tended to turn less on nefarious objectives than shoddy data sources: The Social Security “Death Master File” had failed to deliver a complete index of the deceased, for example, and anyone who has complained about seeing mail for a pet almost certainly put the animal’s name on a warranty or marketing form that fed into one of the commercial databases where WVWV hunted for names of voting-age adults not already on the electoral rolls. Just last week, the Virginia elections board rejected a request from Mitt Romney’s campaign to investigate the group’s mailings to those ineligible to register.

Last year, Gardner’s group renamed itself the Voter Participation Center to reflect a portfolio formally broadened after 2008 to cover what it calls the “Rising American Electorate,” adding unregistered minorities and young people to its mailing list. Gardner emphasizes that the officially non-partisan VPC chooses its targets because they are underrepresented on the voting rolls, not because they are likely Democrats.* But its new universe now neatly covers the core Obama coalition. This year, collaborating with groups like NAACP and the National Council for La Raza to handle their targeted mail registration programs, Gardner expects to help put 800,000 new voters on the rolls for $6.32 each. “We knew from our previous work that the way we registered single woman worked as effectively with other people,” Gardner says. “We knew a mail-based, list-based approach can reach the people who need to be registered in this country.”

* * *

Obama’s team does not appear to have sent out a single registration appeal by mail this year, according to sources inside and outside the campaign familiar with its practices. The choice to stick with the card table exposes an identity crisis that continually vexes decision-making at Chicago headquarters: An empirical campaign built for efficiency can’t always afford to follow the data.

Obama has chosen to adopt the more labor-intensive approach to registering voters, as opposed to the capital-intensive method of acquiring data on prospects and screening through the mail. In large part, that’s because human capital has arguably become the defining obsession of Obama’s approach to electioneering. When the New York Times recently questioned the campaign’s profligate early spending, an Obama spokesman said it was in the service of the campaign’s priority: “building and maintaining our grassroots foundation.”

Much of that grassroots foundation is structured toward the goal of enlisting even more volunteers. A week ago in Northern Virginia, when Mitt Romney’s callers and canvassers found a voter who supported the Republican ticket, he or she was asked if they wanted to submit an absentee ballot request. When Obama canvassers nearby found their backers, the follow-up question was not about voting but volunteering: did the supporter have time to help out?

As a result, the campaign has had a surfeit of free labor, and for much of the year needed activities to keep it occupied. Local organizers worried about losing committed volunteers if they were not continually engaged, even if it was too early in the campaign year to dispatch them to turn out voters or persuade those still undecided. To some degree, in-person registration drives became a make-work project for a campaign looking to test itself.

There are advantages for Obama’s team to be bringing in its own registrations and not solely relying on allies like the Voter Participation Center to do so. By entering data forms immediately as they are collected, Obama’s targeters can begin dispatching mail and phone calls to pending registrants and treat them as voters, even if the board of elections is struggling to clear a backlog of new forms and updated its public voter file—a period in which the Romney campaign may not even know the person exists. At the same time, the campaign’s sophisticated voter-targeting work has given local field organizers newly granular data that can be used to direct site-based programs to locations likely to be have the most plentiful concentrations of registration targets.

But the campaign’s tacticians are aware that, even with such improved geographic targeting, they are in the unusual position of willfully disregarding state-of-the-art campaign science in service of a larger mission. “Everything is about building ‘the biggest grassroots campaign in history,’ ” shrugs one consultant affiliated with Obama’s operation. Accomplishing that goal, campaign officials appear to have decided, may require putting a few new Republicans on the rolls.

Corrections, Aug. 15, 2012: This article originally stated that the Voter Participation Center sends out its registration appeals monthly. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

The article originally stated that the Voter Participation Center made 13 changes to the design of its mailed packages. The changes were to the way it builds its list of targets. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

The article originally inaccurately reported that the Voter Participation Center used microtargeting models to individually identify potential voters most likely to be Democrats. (Return to the corrected paragraph.) 

This sentence was revised to clarify that the Voter Participation Center describes its work as reaching out to groups underrepresented on the voting rolls. (Return to the corrected sentence.)