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The 2018 midterm elections made clear that women of color can run and win against “traditional” white male candidates who aren’t representative of the communities they aim to serve. To win, women of color candidates had to take a different approach. They knew it wasn’t enough to rely on the same progressives who voted almost in every election cycle, because those voters were majority white. Instead, their campaign staff, volunteers, and the voters they reached needed to be more diverse. In 2018, there was a huge uptick in the percentage of people of color who turned out to vote. In fact, Pew Research analysis showed that “Hispanics and Asians each saw their turnout rates increase to about 40%, a roughly 13 percentage point increase over 2014” for both groups. Those elections were about creating a movement that boosted the political power of people of color, and a cry for greater representation on every front. But reaching a more diverse group of potential voters can prove challenging thanks to the limitations of the data that’s available to campaigns. While there is plenty of information about white progressive voters, even in 2019 there isn’t enough existing data on Black and brown people, where they live, and what their political alignments are.

Many campaigns rely on voter information databases to create a story about the voters in their district and learn how to target them most effectively, with the ultimate goal of earning their votes. Specifically, these databases help would-be elected officials gain a better understanding of the demographics and political inclinations of their constituents. The databases allow campaigns to pull call lists to host phone banks, figure out who lives in different precincts throughout their communities, and narrow their targeted universe based on a voter’s indicated political affiliation or values. When candidates and their staff or volunteers go out to canvass, they want to know how to create a script that tailors to the makeup of that community. Without knowing this information, campaigns have to play catch-up.

Not all databases are created equal, and each political party has its favorite. Republicans use rVoter Data Center, which boasts that it’s “perfect for PACs, SuperPacs, Special Interest Groups, Church groups, the NRA.” On the other hand, Democrats and progressive candidates use Votebuilder, the wing of the NGP Voter Activation Network (VAN) that focuses on field operations. Usually, political party staff works to populate these databases by pulling public information from existing voter records including name, voting history, and addresses. The problem is that the majority of the voters in this country are white. As a result, progressive and inclusive campaigns must commit to the extra legwork of going blind canvassing to meet new people who have never been reached before, and then manually input the information on these newly reached folks—especially people of color—into the database.

Increasingly, campaigns are recognizing that the existing databases are excluding significant numbers of Black and brown people from political outreach. In 2018, then-candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign staff recognized that the VAN was inherently exclusive. By focusing primarily on helping campaigners meet existing voters at their homes, it didn’t allow staff to meet new potential voters wherever they were, and didn’t connect with the lives of Black and brown folk who had never been welcomed into the progressive activist space. After all, today’s working class and young people “don’t spend tons of time at home, and rarely answer their phone.” 

To expand beyond the voters in the VAN, Ocasio-Cortez’s staff turned to Reach, an app that helps progressive campaigns expand their outreach by meeting people where they are. Degroot, the creator of the app, commented that the campaign initially “had all these people talking to voters, but [they] weren’t capturing any of the data.” Through the app, volunteers and staff could connect with voters, especially young people and people of color, anywhere they were instead of waiting until they were at home and risking the perpetuation of a system that excluded them. Still, Reach is not yet as popular as the VAN, and accounted for only 12% of outreach in AOC’s campaign.

When I was a campaign field organizer for Hillary Clinton in Michigan in 2016, I was taught that knocking on doors was vital, but that if my canvassing results weren’t in the VAN, then it was as if it never happened. I knew that if we didn’t make an effort to include people of color in our outreach, they’d always be left out from the data. So when a couple of my volunteers did not want to go out into communities to knock doors or make phone calls because they couldn’t pronounce a non-white name, it was extremely frustrating. When I would go blind canvassing and see that most of the households that did not exist in the VAN were households of color, it told me that we as a society are not doing enough to understand the changing demographics of our communities and are relying on data that doesn’t reflect the world we live in.

The problem with data collection and data input is that most of the people who have invested in this work are white. They did not have communities of color in mind when they were creating these tools, or at least were neutral on the issue, and campaign staff typically haven’t had communities of color in mind when inputting data to the databases.

If progressives want to win elections, we have to expand our data. The founder of NGP Software, Inc. (now NGP VAN, Inc.), Nathaniel Pearlman, believes that “political technologists have a responsibility to consider ethics and civics in their work, not just winning.” Excluding people of color from our data perpetuates an unjust and unfair democracy, one that continuously favors the dollars and voices of white people rather than creating a sense of belonging for all—that clearly goes against against ethics and civics.

We are doing much better than ever before, but we have to be intentional about it. We need people of color on campaign staff who recognize these disparities in data, we need candidates of color, and we need to train people of color to become experts in both data collection and data input and visualization. It’s not enough to hand off campaign data responsibilities to the same people who have been holding onto it for so long.

I’m hopeful for the 2020 elections, where many candidates have put people of color in high-level campaign positions and have made clear they want their campaigns to reflect what America truly looks like. There’s reason to think that approach may extend into the campaigns’ data collection efforts: Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, for instance, hosts online Reach trainings for volunteers and staff to normalize modern digital organizing techniques. Those efforts point the way forward. Rather than waiting around for perfect data or relying on outdated tools, candidates and campaigns must put in the work to reach voters of color.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Nathaniel Pearlman was the creator of the NGP Voter Action Network (VAN). It has been updated to reflect that Pearlman is the Founder of NGP Software, Inc. (now NGP VAN, Inc.).

Ammara Ansari

Ammara Ansari