Enterprise

Running a campaign is hard enough. Try running a campaign without redistricting data.

From ad-targeting disruption and voter contact confusion to donor stalling and voter registration obstacles, undecided electoral maps mean serious data headaches.

Districts pulled out and separated from each other on a map.

Voters, candidates and government election authorities are feeling the brunt of a tardy census and late redistricting throughout the country.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Patricia Goetz couldn’t wait any longer. The physician and Democrat running for an Ohio state senate seat finally got to knocking on voters’ doors in late April in her hometown of Hudson, the charming city between Cleveland and Akron known for its preserved 19th century homes, old-timey storefronts and historic clock tower.

It was time to kick her campaign into gear, but she still doesn’t know for sure whether the district she aims to represent will include the city where she lives, a requirement for holding office.

With 2020 census data coming in late, some states — including Ohio — have yet to finalize their redistricted electoral maps. Amid political rancor, lawsuits and accusations of extreme partisan gerrymandering by a Republican-led redistricting commission, the Great Lakes swing state has already rejected four maps. Some of those didn’t include Hudson in the 27th district, where Goetz thinks she’s running.

“I’m having trouble getting donors. They don’t want to donate — the big-ticket donors — until they know what district I’m in,” Goetz, a psychiatrist, said.

“Ohio state legislative maps, going through a fifth round of revisions, are a perfect example of the chaos created when the redistricting process goes awry,” said Grace Briscoe, senior vice president of Client Development at digital ad company Basis Technologies, which recently added an option for political advertisers to pinpoint their ad targeting to people in specific state legislative districts, in addition to U.S. congressional districts.

But right now, there’s no interest in targeting Ohio’s 27th state Senate district using the ad system. “At the moment, no one is looking to target [the district] because no one is sure what that district will be, who will be running there, who will even be eligible to run and who the voters will actually be. It has created a standstill for now,” Briscoe said.

Patricia Goetz Patricia Goetz Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Goetz

Without those would-be big donors, Goetz said she is paying out of her own pocket for a campaign manager, treasurer, digital media consulting and fundraising help. And rather than narrowly focusing her efforts to reach specific voters in an undefined district, she’s going wide, getting her message out in social media and trying to reach a broad audience of people she hopes will be receptive to her pro-science message. In part because of the map fluctuations, it appears as though Goetz will not face any Democratic primary opponents.

But that could change. Voters won’t go to the polls in a state legislative primary until sometime this summer. Meanwhile, the state’s congressional races will go ahead on Tuesday in a congressional primary using a temporary map.

Manual data labor

The dearth of finalized data has a trickle-down effect. Voters, candidates and government election authorities are feeling the brunt of a tardy census and late redistricting throughout the country.

From ad-targeting disruption and voter contact confusion to donor stalling and obstacles to voter registration efforts, unsettled electoral maps mean serious data headaches. Redistricted maps in 10 states including Ohio are in litigation, and five do not have maps drafted, according to Princeton’s nonpartisan analysis.

“It’s not a stretch to say it affects every decision you’re going to make about how you’re going to target in your campaign,” said Paul Westcott, executive vice president of Sales and Marketing at L2, a nonpartisan political data provider. L2 sends customers including Basis Technologies an updated feed of fresh data that it then plugs into to its digital ad platform, allowing political advertisers to aim ads at people based on their actual voting district boundaries, rather than the typical approach of using ZIP code targeting as a proxy.

Still, “there’s no database I have seen yet that makes it easy to target the 6th district of Ohio,” said Matt Dole, a Republican campaign consultant at Communications Counsel in Ohio.

Dole’s client, Rep. Bill Johnson, is a Republican running for reelection in that U.S. congressional district. But so far, even though there is a map that will apply for the impending primary, it remains subject to legal challenges afterwards. That means Dole’s first stop for voter list data — GOP Data Center, the Republican National Committee’s national voter database — has not incorporated the updated information he needs to easily generate lists of gun-rights advocates or women aged 35-and-over in Johnson’s district for targeted canvassing, ad targeting, printed mail delivery and voter outreach efforts.

It’s a pain in the rear end for the person who has to pull that data.

That means Dole and his team have had to track down precinct and corresponding ZIP code data from at least 75 local election board authorities, then manually enter that information into the GOP system. “It’s a pain in the rear end for the person who has to pull that data. It’s a lot of precincts,” Dole said. “That’s painful because we’re into early voting and [Johnson is] on the ballot in May, and we have to do some targeting.”

Post-primary, Dole hopes a map is decided and Ohio’s election authorities report their local-area data to the Secretary of State in a timely manner. “Congressional data can be slow,” he said.

But compiling that data takes time.

“When the lines come out at 5 p.m. on a Friday and they call us at 5:03 and say, ‘Hey, where are the lines?’ In some cases they’re mad at us when the state hasn’t even decided the lines yet,” Westcott said, referring to the district boundary lines and geographical shape files his company receives from state redistricting bodies. Once L2 gets that information, the company overlays it with the information it has on voter households within those boundaries.

A piecemeal problem

It's BallotReady’s mission to make sense of the data maze created by the jumble of U.S. election processes and authorities. The nonpartisan organization, which provides information on upcoming elections, candidates, ballot measures and other local election data, has a team of researchers whose job it is to contact local authorities for data on rules for voting by mail, which candidates are running in every district and where ballot drop boxes are located.

When election time nears, BallotReady hires additional contractors to manage the workload, said CEO and co-founder Alex Niemczewski. In March, the organization had around 80 people making calls and digging around municipal, city and county websites for updated election information. By November, there could be as many as 120, Niemczewski said.

“We kind of assume stuff is going to be messy. We have to be very good at gathering and changing frequently updated data,” she said. If district maps and data are still undecided, the BallotReady site might err on the side of too much data, for example, listing voter information for all city council seats even though someone might only be able to vote for two of them. “It’s a suboptimal user experience,” she said.

The 2022 midterms bring a new obstacle to data gathering. Partisan bullying has put so much pressure on local election authorities and even created genuine security threats, leading some of those authorities to be less accessible to organizations seeking out updated data, Niemczewski said. “There used to be someone who would answer the phone, but now it goes straight to voicemail; they have received so many violent threats,” she said.

Even when information is available, it is not formatted in a standardized way, could include errors and might be provided using antiquated technology. “We got a floppy disc in 2019,” Niemczewski said.

That data might not even be digitized. “We have gotten letters in the mail that are responses to emails, and it’s, like, signed; there’s a signature at the bottom,” she said.

“You just have this decentralized, disconnected and fragmented ecosystem where no one is responsible for correcting errors,” said Jeremy Smith, CEO and co-founder of Civitech, which provides information for people interested in running for office and helps advocacy groups find potential candidates to endorse who are trained to run for school boards or other hyperlocal seats.

Civitech buys some of its election data from BallotReady, L2 and Democratic data supplier TargetSmart, according to Smith. But that doesn’t cover all the bases, so the startup has a data acquisition team and is building a crowdsourcing tool that local advocacy groups and nonprofits can use to help fill in the blanks.

Smith pointed to a planned voter registration campaign in Maryland that has been held up by redistricting data hurdles. “They don’t know who those people are because they don’t know where their district is,” he said.

The lack of finalized district data, said Smith, means “there are groups waiting in the wings to do these things, and we don’t have a good option to sell them because the data is not there.” Not only does the lack of data result in lost or delayed revenue for his company, when customers have no choice but to go ahead with a project, “we can’t do any geographical analysis” of voters or the campaign landscape, he said.

“It matters quite a lot for any chance for improvement in innovation,” Smith said, explaining that customers “are often resorting to unsophisticated methods.”

Meanwhile, in Ohio, it looks like Goetz will not have a challenger in this summer’s state legislative primary, so she is setting her sights on November’s general election. “If there was a primary it would be really bad,” she said.

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