Should You Hire a Vendor for Your Voter File?

Originally posted on

This article originally appeared in Winning Campaigns Magazine.

As a voter file vendor, this is not a new question for us.  In fact, we have found our greatest competition is from clients who decide to “bring the voter file in-house”.

Is this wise?

Like most decisions, nothing is always right or always wrong.  But there are certain arguments that should be considered by every campaign or party that is considering the building and management of their voter file in-house.

   1.      Bringing it in-house virtually always means one person, a person who will build the database, manage its use and update, and often produce products from the file.  In the case of state parties, this means that all candidates accessing that voter file have their capabilities completely defined by the ability of that one person.
   2.      That one person may be the greatest computer programmer and/or voter file manager on earth.  But even in that case, he or she had better not go on vacation, get sick, die or quit.  And what if that person turns out not to be the best?
   3.      Hiring a vendor usually means you are getting more than one person.  It also means that you are taking advantage of accumulated years of experience.  Any vendor that has been around for a while has made mistakes and learned from those mistakes.  The in-house person generally hasn’t yet made the mistakes that the vendor has already learned from.
   4.      Of all campaign resources, the one that is always shrinking is the calendar.  Anything that wastes time hurts the campaign.  It takes time to build a voter file and it takes time to make and correct mistakes.  The in-house person runs the risk of wasting time if everything doesn’t work as planned.
   5.      Campaign consultants who also use the voter files, for polling, direct mail, phone banks, would almost always rather depend on a professional voter file vendor than a campaign or Party staff member for their data.
   6.      Campaigns or state parties rarely make their own ads, conduct their own polls or manage their own phone banks.  Why does the voter file need to be completely managed by staff?

These arguments sound self-serving to be sure but the reality is that those of us who do this for a living have picked up many clients over the years from in-house operations that failed.  To be sure, we have made mistakes in the past and will make more.  But the advantage of doing this year in and year out is we have a chance to learn from those mistakes and to not repeat them.  Plus, working in a number of states allows the experiences in one to work to the benefit of another.

I can say for certain that I know we get better at this every year, constantly tweaking the process to make things work better and to find efficiencies we did not previously have.  We also know that voter files, created by local election officials with inconsistent levels of ability and enthusiasm, present greater challenges than most databases.  There are almost always particular nuances to voter files that demand extra attention.

So cautions are in order.  Do the perceived control and cost savings, usually the motivations for in-house operations, seem worth the risk?  We can’t be sure they are without a crystal ball but we have found, through our 20 plus years of experience that there are good, solid reasons for hiring a vendor to do it right.

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