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Technology Adds New Element to Getting Out Vote

With PDAs, political activist groups can further target their message. Both parties are collecting data to be used in future elections.

October 28, 2004|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

NORTH LAS VEGAS, Nev. — More than in any prior election, the outcome of this year's presidential campaign may be driven by a technological arms race.

With turnout a crucial factor, the major parties and their allies have been stocking their arsenals, amassing hand-held computers loaded with individual citizens' leanings and concerns, push-to-talk phones and satellite pictures that help them plot the quickest routes between neighborhoods.

Democratic supporters are using thousands of the small computers known as personal digital assistants to pluck out detailed information on prospective voters for Sen. John F. Kerry, along with the arguments most likely to sway them, before knocking on their doors. The Republicans will use similar gadgets on election day to make sure party members have voted for President Bush.

As significant as anything that happens on the street is what may happen with all the information being collected -- an unprecedented mass of data about voters that include age, gender, neighborhood demographics and details about voting habits and personal concerns.

Those bits and bytes determine what political mail and phone calls people get, along with which geographic areas and issues deserve broader attention. Hard data are replacing reasonable guesses, said Christopher Arterton, dean of George Washington University's graduate school of political management.

All told, the combined get-out-the-vote efforts of the two campaigns, the political parties and activist nonprofit groups will compose "the most extensive, and the most expensive, in modern history," Arterton said.

Yet in some ways the technologically driven outreach is a throwback to the days of the urban political machines, when ward heelers knew how to get out the vote in their part of a big city. After decades of less efficient direct mail and cold calls, the technology has evolved to the point that millions of residents living in battleground states are getting as much personal attention as a 1940s Democrat did in Chicago.

The key tactical advance in this election, Arterton said, is the PDAs, which give political activists "the accessibility and portability of a database that used to be available only when you went to the headquarters."

Probably the most advanced gadgetry is being used by America Coming Together, a liberal group working on behalf of Kerry in key states.

ACT's Nevada campaign put 150 Tungsten T2 personal digital assistants in the hands of canvassers such as Kristin Perrah-Lewis and Guadalupe Astacio. This week they took their T2s into the Crossroads II apartment complex, looking for Democratic voters in a middle-class area just off Interstate 15.

The area was chosen for its history of supporting Democrats. With phone calls and two previous rounds of house visits, ACT staffers whittled the list, eliminating Republicans and Democrats who needed no convincing. That left Perrah-Lewis and Astacio searching for sporadic Democrats who hadn't cast early ballots.

Poking around on the silver T2s, the women brought up the addresses in the order they needed for their walk.

Behind each address was a name, and behind most names was a candidate preference and an issue or two that the person had identified as important during previous talks with ACT staffers.

"Let's go see Jessica," Perrah-Lewis said as she peered at her device. "She's 19. She's never voted before."

Perrah-Lewis also knew from the entry that Jessica planned to vote for Kerry. For that reason, she could concentrate on hectoring her to vote as soon as possible. Perrah-Lewis even offered to have a van driver escort her with the children she was minding.

The woman promised to vote within days, setting herself up for a series of nagging phone calls if she didn't.

When the ACT staffers arrived at another apartment, they didn't find the person on their list, but they did meet the uncommitted Jason Minkus. Perrah-Lewis made a case for Kerry, suggested that Minkus visit a neutral website to weigh the arguments and entered his name and number in her PDA.

Back in the office at the end of her shift, Perrah-Lewis put the $200-plus machine in a cradle and pressed a button, swapping its updated data in 40 seconds with the massive computers in Rhode Island that store information for all of ACT's 17 states.

That data swap alone replaces about three hours' worth of entry by hand and is one of the biggest breakthroughs since 2002, when the program was developed for an Iowa campaign by the Voter Activation Network, a small technology firm with Democratic clients. (Two years ago, even Iowa data had to be reformatted on a PC before getting to the central computer.)

"It makes life a lot easier," said Perrah-Lewis, who started in May with just a clipboard and paper.

ACT operations in other states are using the same tools in different ways. Some used them to download talking points before meeting with voters.

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