July 15, 2004
Moultrie-- With all the political signs, with all the advertising, with all the campaign cards, we know an election happens Tuesday. A few local politicians discovered that technology can help them save campaign money and be more effective at the same time.
In a small room, and not even a smoke filled room at that, political history gets organized like James Watson wants it. "There's an awful lot of data there," says computer expert James Watson as he looks at rows and columns of numbers that appear random.
Politicians often use a paper voters' list and the newer electronic list to find the names and addresses of people to send campaign information to. But politicians sometimes find the paper and the newer electronic lists so disorganized they need help to decipher them.
"Pretty easy, yes," says James, when asked about how hard it is to find specific information. James Watson's has a talent of taking a hodge-podge of numbers that don't seem to mean anything and organizing them into potent campaign information.
"Not uncommon for candidates to ask us for a list of who participated in a particular election," says James. With that information, for example, politicians can mail only to those people who vote often, precisely targeting their messages like never before. "Reduced the size of their mailings," says James as he types.
Cutting a politician's campaign costs, sending messages to those more likely to consider it appeals to them. "Where they need to focus their efforts," says James.
Six politicians have discovered his talent for mining voter information, and certainly many more will want his help with future elections. "I have history back to the year 2000," says James about his own database.
The Secretary of State's information goes back to 1996. In an electronic cat and mouse game of sorts, I asked him to find my voting history. "Let's see," says James typing in a simple looking phrase.
The key to my history was a voter identification number, 1631078, one I never knew existed. "It comes from the precinct card," says James when asked where to find the number. I never remember seeing it. The seven digits that make up the obscure voter ID number make my personal information search possible.
Every voter has one, and with it, James Watson can find out a ton of information politicians will pay for. "Did a search of your last name and Tifton," says James.
In a blink, my voting history became an electronic open book on his computer monitor. "I see eight elections you have voted in since the year 2000. General election, presidential," says James pointing to each one. Some were local elections without political party affiliations. It had my birth date, when I registered to vote, and that I go to the polls to vote, shunning the absentee option. It had information I had forgotten long ago, but the Secretary of State's office hadn't, all right there for anyone to see and to use.
"It's all public records," says James in a reassuring voice, but it was a lot of information. He can explore about 107 categories for each voter. Information that's been available for years made easier and faster to find with a computer under James Watson's command.
While it shows voting history, it can't show an important bit of information. "It does not include who you voted for," says James. Who you voted for still remains a secret, but just about everything else is like your own political open book. A best-seller that will get read by more and more politicians, hoping voting histories repeat themselves.
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