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All Tech Considered
3:11 pm
Mon February 27, 2012

To Get Out The Vote, Evangelicals Try Data Mining

Originally published on Mon February 27, 2012 6:36 pm

When Bill Dallas first heard that 15 to 20 million Christians in the U.S. are not registered to vote, he couldn't believe it.

"Initially, it surprised me. And then I thought to myself, 'Wait a minute, I'm not registered,' Dallas says. "Why wasn't I registered? Well, because I didn't think my vote made a difference."

Identifying Christians With Data Points

Dallas, an evangelical Christian, has since become a voter. He now runs United In Purpose, a nonprofit startup company that uses data mining to identify unregistered Christians.

The company persuaded wealthy Silicon Valley conservatives to help fund the creation of a database of as many adults in the U.S. as they can find. So far, UIP has added 180 million.

The company buys lists to build a profile of each citizen, and then assigns points for certain characteristics. You get points if you're on an anti-abortion list or a traditional marriage list. You get a point if you regularly attend church or home-school your kids. You get points if you like NASCAR or fishing.

"If [your score] totaled over 600 points, then we realized you were very serious about your faith," Dallas says. "Then we run that person against the voter registration database. ... If they were not registered, that became one of the key people we were going to target to go after."

Dallas hopes UIP will register 5 million conservative Christians in the next year — a number he believes could help decide the 2012 presidential race. He points out that in 2008, key states such as Florida, North Carolina and Missouri were won by very small margins — much smaller than the number of unregistered Christians in those states.

To that end, United In Purpose is working with volunteers from organizations such as the Family Research Council to make calls and knock on doors.

Data Mining Meets Old-Fashioned Door-Knocking

The volunteers are called "champions," and Scott Spages, an evangelical Christian and political activist in Davie, Fla., was an early adopter. Electing moral leaders, he says, is a "biblical mandate." So when the Family Research Council came to his church to urge champions to use the new data mining technology, Spages promptly signed up.

"God says that when the righteous rule, the people rejoice, and when the wicked rule, the people groan," Spages says. "So as Christian[s], we are specifically called upon by the Bible and by God to raise up our leaders."

Spages wants to bring that message to his Christian neighbors, so on a recent evening he went into his office, logged onto a website that uses the United In Purpose database and entered his address.

The database finds unregistered Christians who live near him — about 15 names within a couple of miles. The website gives him a script to read, along with several ways to reach his target audience: phone number, email and address. Spages prints out the addresses and heads off, Google maps in hand.

The first person on Spages' list lives in a gated community. The guard won't let him through, so he makes a phone call. He identifies himself and asks if he can speak to Orlando, who — according to UIP's database — is not registered to vote. Spages listens, then says, "Oh, OK. So, Orlando and everyone in the house is registered? OK."

Puzzled, Spages drives to the next house. There, too, everyone is registered. It happens again at the next house and the next, so when Spages reaches Brenda Jacobson to ask if she wants to register, he's not surprised by her answer.

"Well, I'm registered, so I'm not sure why my name showed up," she says.

"We found that a lot tonight," Spages responds, "so I'm going to have to double check that."

As it turns out, all of the names on the Florida list are registered voters — a mistake that United In Purpose discovered after NPR's reporting. In South Carolina and Iowa, the UIP lists also contained registered voters.

But in Ohio, the database worked perfectly. And Kay Clymer, a Tea Partier and evangelical Christian from Zanesville, was eager to use it. Clymer, 67, spends several hours each day on the phone urging people to register and vote. She says she can't remember a more critical election.

"I do strongly, strongly believe that the Lord's totally in control," she says. "I pray for a Red Sea experience like he did with the Egyptians — and then wash those people out that don't belong in office. And that's what keeps me going."

She knocks on the door of a neighbor who's been identified as an unregistered Christian. A woman answers, and Clymer makes her pitch.

"Are you registered to vote?" she asks.

"I'm not, but my husband is," the woman responds.

"Would you like to be registered to vote?"

"No. I wouldn't waste my time on any of them," the woman says.

At the next house, the reception is a bit more prickly.

"I'm sorry, they're all crooks and you'll never be able to blame me," the woman says, declining the registration form Clymer offers.

"I'm just trying to get Christians to go out and vote," Clymer protests.

"Well, I'm a Christian, but that's as far as this is going to go," she says, and closes the door.

Clymer leaves, discouraged.

"I wish at least one person would take it," she laments.

But no one takes a registration form that afternoon.

High-Tech Tools Can't Overcome Apathy

Dallas, the head of United In Purpose, was embarrassed to learn the organization had botched the list in Florida. And he's philosophical about voter apathy — even antipathy — in Ohio.

"When you look at all these factors," Dallas says, "you realize what a herculean effort this is — to try to bring in a large group of new voters into the voting population."

United In Purposes' experiment shows the promise and peril of having a bottomless well of data to draw upon: Accessing it is one thing — using it effectively is another thing entirely.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I'm Audie Cornish. And it's time now for All Tech Considered.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: Today on All Tech - data mining for conservative Christians. A new organization is targeting millions of unregistered believers and trying to persuade them to vote in the next election.

As NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty explains, the idea could be a game-changer, though it comes with a few hitches.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: When Bill Dallas first heard that 15 to 20 million Christians are not registered to vote, he couldn't believe it.

BILL DALLAS: Initially it surprised me. And then I thought to myself, wait a minute, I'm not registered. And I said, well, why wasn't I registered? Well, because I didn't think my vote made a difference.

HAGERTY: Dallas has since become a voter and now runs United in Purpose, a startup nonprofit company that uses data mining to identify unregistered Christians. The company persuaded wealthy Silicon Valley conservatives to helps fund a database of every adult in the country. It buys lists to build a profile of each citizen, and then assigns points for certain characteristics.

So, Dallas says, you get points if you're on a pro-life list, or a traditional marriage list. If you regularly attend church or home school your kids, if you like NASCAR or fishing.

DALLAS: If it totaled over 600 points, then we realized you are very serious about your faith. And then we run that person against the voter registration database. And if they were not registered that became one of our key people that we were going to target to go after.

HAGERTY: Dallas hopes to register five million people in the next year, which he believes could help decide the 2012 race. To that end, the company is recruiting volunteers from places like the Family Research Council to make the calls and knock on doors. They're called champions.

SCOTT SPAGES: My name is Scott Spages. I'm a 25-year political activist.

HAGERTY: Scott Spages, from Davy, Florida, signed up as a champion because he feels that electing moral leaders is a biblical mandate.

SPAGES: God says that when the righteous rule, the people rejoice, and when the wicked rule the people groan. So, as a Christian, we are specifically called upon by the Bible and by God to raise up our leaders.

HAGERTY: Spages wants to bring that message to his Christian neighbors. So, he logs onto the United in Purpose database, enters his address and the database finds unregistered Christians nearby.

SPAGES: And so, now I have maybe 15 names have popped up, mostly in my vicinity

HAGERTY: Spages heads off, Google Maps in hand. The first person lives in a gated community. The guard won't let him through, so he makes a phone call.

SPAGES: Yeah, my name is Scott. I'm here as a volunteer for the Family Research Council. We identify him as a Christian who's not registered to vote. Oh, OK. OK. So, Orlando and everyone in the house is registered.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

HAGERTY: It happens at the next house and the one after. So, when Spages reaches Brenda Jacobson to ask if she wants to register, he's not surprised.

BRENDA JACOBSON: Well, I'm registered. So, I'm not sure why my name showed up.

SPAGES: And we found that a lot tonight. We found a lot of people, now we're all registered. Everybody is cleared. So, I'm going to have to double check that.

JACOBSON: Wow. Yeah, huh?

HAGERTY: Turns out, all the names on Florida's list are registered, a mistake United in Purpose discovered after NPR's reporting.

Now, in Ohio, the database worked perfectly. And 67-year-old Kay Clymer was eager to use it. Clymer is a Tea Partier and evangelical Christian in Zanesville.

KAY CLYMER: I do strongly, strongly believe that the Lord is totally in control. I pray for a Red Sea experience like he did with the Egyptians, and wash those people out that don't belong in office, and that's what keeps me going.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

HAGERTY: A woman answers. Clymer pitches.

CLYMER: I'm Kay Clymer, and I'm with Champion the Vote and United in Purpose. And I'm out trying to get people to vote that might not be registered. Are you registered to vote?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: I'm not, but my husband is.

CLYMER: Would you like to be registered to vote?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: No, I wouldn't waste my time on any of them.

CLYMER: Oh.

HAGERTY: At the next house, it's a bit more prickly.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: I'm sorry, they're all crooks. And you'll never be able to blame me.

CLYMER: I'm just trying to get Christians to vote.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Yup. Well, I'm a Christian, but that's as far as it's going to go.

CLYMER: OK.

HAGERTY: Clymer leaves, discouraged.

CLYMER: I wish at least one person would take it.

HAGERTY: But no one takes a registration form that afternoon.

Afterwards, I called Bill Dallas, the head of United in Purpose, to tell him the results. He was embarrassed that they botched the list in Florida and philosophical about Ohio.

DALLAS: When you look at all these factors, you realize what a, you know, Herculean effort this is to try to bring a large group of new voters into the voting population.

HAGERTY: Dallas' experiment shows the promise and peril of having a bottomless well of data to draw upon. Accessing it is one thing, using it effectively is another thing entirely.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.