The Tech Battle for the White House

The Democrats and Republicans are both harnessing technology in a bid to win the White House

August 13, 2004

4 Min Read
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Behind all the mud-slinging about war records, national security, and the economy, Democrats and Republicans are both harnessing technology in an effort to win the White House on November 2nd.

When it comes to presidential elections, the simple fact is that knowledge equals power. The more that parties know about individual members of the electorate, the better the chance of winning them over.

So as the election draws nearer, with its familiar sights -- party workers wearing out their shoe leather and candidates kissing screaming babies -- the chances are that a computer system back at HQ has given out info on how to win votes in that particular neighborhood.

But both parties are keeping a tight lid on these systems. A spokesman for the Democratic National Committee this morning would only confirm that it has over 160 million” people on its database, although NDCF has managed to find out some more details about the technology supporting 2004’s election campaigns.

Prompted by their narrow defeat in 2000 and the McCain-Feingold legislation on campaign finance reform, the Democrats have put their faith in a system called Demzilla, which was launched in March last year. The Republicans, however, have developed the somewhat shadowy Voter Vault system in an attempt to keep Dubya in the Oval Orifice.But in reality, the Democrats’ campaign is actually being driven by two systems. Demzilla, a donor database, is just one of these. The Democrats’ workhouse is DataMart, a massive data warehouse containing information on 166 million potential voters. The two systems, which were built by software specialist Plus Three, are combined to both help raise funds and get voters out.

Both Democrat systems use the same core technologies -- Linux open source software, MySQL databases, Apache Web servers, and the PERL programming language. XML is used to translate data between systems.

The DataMart’s voter information comes from individual states, and these numbers are then crunched by applying over 100 different "action records" or "personal attributes" to the data. These include income, address, employment status, and educational background, as well as affiliations such as labor unions and special interest groups.

From this, the Democrats build voter profiles which can be broken down into geographic areas. So if Kerry and Edwards decide to target ex-miners in Pennsylvania, for example, or war veterans in West Virginia, they should be able to do so at the touch of a button.

The Party of Lincoln’s Voter Vault system is said to fulfill a similar role. But with the election a little over two months away, the GOP is playing its technology cards close to its chest. The Republican National Committee did not reply to NDCF's requests for a briefing on Voter Vault.However, the system has around 165 million names on its database, according to reports, which places it on a par with the Democrats’ DataMart. But the word on the street is that Voter Vault offers local party workers far greater access than its Democrat counterpart. Certainly, local Republican groups across the U.S. have been hard at work training their members to use Voter Vault over the past few months.

But Keith Gile, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. warns that both parties face a major challenge handling these quantities of data. “It’s not as if data mining is a simple technique,” he says. "It’s not easy to click your fingers and get the right information out."

David Brunton, vice president of sales and marketing at PlusThree, says the Democrats’ systems contain a “sophisticated set of matching tools” to ensure that they get the right information from their hoard of data. These include software tools that can identify duplicate records and a feedback tool that identifies address, email, and telephone number changes. The systems are also integrated with the U.S. Postal Service’s database, according to Brunton.

However, with falling prices for processing power and storage, Gile acknowledges that voter systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated. “Technology is clearly more mature than it was four years ago, and I believe that it will be even more refined in four years' time."

But even if the Dems and the GOP manage to get their voters out on November 2nd, there is still the challenge of actually counting the votes. Surely nothing could go wrong at that point -- could it?— James Rogers, Site Editor, Next-gen Data Center Forum

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