September 30, 2012

High tech helps grass-roots legislators manage races

By Michael Shepherd
Staff Writer

AUGUSTA -- Corey Wilson is sitting at a downtown bar, but he has his legislative campaign with him.

Wilson, a 27-year-old Republican running for a Maine House of Representatives seat, takes out his iPad and opens Mobile Voter, an app for Apple and Android devices that he's been using to organize his campaign.

He scrolls a map over his Augusta district, which is mostly on the east side of the Kennebec River. Pins drop, representing voter residences -- red pins for Republicans, purple for independents and green for Democrats. When you touch a pin, a name and an address pop up.

Hit it again and canvassers can input data. There are easy "yes" and "no" options for a number of questions, including whether the resident is a supporter or an opponent, has a yard sign or would like to vote by mail. Through a Web application, Wilson can download spreadsheets clearly outlining this information.

"Typically, you'd be walking around with this pile of paper, you've got it organized by street name, you get to the damn house and it's like, 'Oh, this is 3 Patterson (St.) and this is so-and-so,'" Wilson said. "Then you check them off or highlight them and you end up with a pile of papers everywhere. Then somebody's got to go home and input that data.

"This application has allowed me to be so organized," he said.

Wilson's not at all alone. He's passed the technology along to two other capital-area House candidates, both young Republicans running for state office for the first time, just like Wilson.

According to many, 2012 is shaping up to be a watershed year for mobile strategy in campaigns here and beyond. Nationally, this means the presidential campaigns are using geolocation, apps and other features on smartphones and tablets to send voters customized messages.

Mobile apps are also catching on with Maine's politicos, from operatives to experts to candidates. They're used for organization, efficiency, education, simple convenience and yes, leisure.

Big help on the stump

For the Maine Democratic and Republican parties, app use is all about functionality on the stump. As Wilson said, speed of data entry is key when trying to reach the maximum number of potential voters.

For the election cycle, the Maine Democratic Party bought about 10 refurbished iPod Touches for canvassers going door to door, party spokeswoman Lizzy Reinholt said. It's the cheapest way for them to access MiniVAN Touch, an app that integrates with NGP VAN, a company that maintains voter information and provides it to Democratic and progressive campaigns. She said 2012 is the first year in which the Maine party has used the app.

"When we're doing door-to-door, we can hook it up and addresses come right up," said Reinholt, the Democrats' spokeswoman. "Every time we used to do door-knocking, we'd have all this data entry we had to do. Now we can do it on the spot."

Republicans have an answer to that system: an app made by the company that maintains their voter database.

Maine GOP spokesman David Sorensen said that on the trail, the party uses Geo Connect, which is made by FLS Connect, a company specializing in data management for conservative political and business clients.

This is also the first election cycle in which they're using apps, which he said volunteers usually download onto their personal smartphones. The Maine GOP also uses another FLS product, GOP Data Center, which allows operatives to search easily for voter information within the region they're interested in.

Sorensen said Republicans -- in Maine and nationally -- are seeing massive gains so far in 2012 because of these new tools and strategies. He chalks it up not only to productivity, but also to volunteer retention.

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