Building Better Walk Lists

Categories: Campaign Advice • Published on November 14, 2013 at 11:29 PM

Obama2008CanvassingPreparationWalk Lists are key to any field campaign, but sometimes their design and formatting is the most easily overlooked item in the campaign.  A good report format can mean the difference between getting actionable information from field staff or causing confusion with those knocking doors for the campaign.  This article is the first in a series discussing the basic walk lists that come from VAN, and how to improve upon them to make them easier to understand by everyone on the campaign.  It should be noted that this and other articles focus on so there may be some slight variations if you are using VAN from another State Party or through a Political Action Committee (PAC).

Original Walk List format

The image below is a walk list created in VAN using the default Walk List Report Format that comes with most VAN accounts in Texas.  A sample test script illustrates how Survey Questions from the Script are displayed in this format.  Some voter information has been blocked out in this and other images to help protect voter privacy in this demonstration.

Walk List Original

Original out-of-box walk list report format from VAN

The Report Format is divided in 5 columns.  The primary concern with this type of format is the use of codes for canvass results as well as Survey Questions.  Codes are great space savers, but they can be confusing to walkers in the field, especially when that walker is tired, hungry, thirsty, or just trying to get through the script before the voter slams the door in their face.

Column 1 Column 2 Column 3 Column 4 Column 5
Email Address
Voter Name
City, State, Zip
Phone Number
Sex, Age
Canvass Codes Script Questions

Walk List Essentials

Every walk that is printed by a campaign needs to have at least two essential pieces of data for each voter: a Barcode and their VAN ID.  I have seen campaigns remove these two pieces of data in order to save space at their own peril.  The VAN ID number is essential because it allows a Data Entry person to easily and quickly look up any voter that is found on a walk list without having to pull out at barcode scanner or re-load the entire walk list in Grid View.  This can be critical when entering specific data outside of the normal Grid View, or attempting to look up other voter data for a post-walk follow-up by campaign staff or candidate.

Barcodes are also essential on a walk list because they allow much easier entry of data when a campaign is using paper walk lists.  Grid View and Script View can only load a list created within the last 30 days.  This means that once those 30 days have passed, the only way to enter walk list data into VAN is through use of a barcode scanner.  This makes quick data entry on older walk lists nearly impossible without the use of a scanner.

A list could be recreated after 30 days by using the same search criteria.  However, there is no guarantee that the voters loaded now will exactly match the voters that were loaded when the list was initially printed. The discrepancy can be caused by newly registered voters being added to VAN or existing voters no longer meeting the list’s original criteria.

It is not uncommon for a campaign to find a completed walk list that is over 30 days old, but was never entered into VAN.  The list fell behind a desk, got miss-filed by campaign staff, or lost in the back of the candidate’s car.  Alternatively, a candidate could have just taken over 30 days to fully walk a very large walk list.  Whatever the cause, once that 30 day mark is passed, the only way to enter a paper walk list back into VAN easily is by using a barcode scanner.

Understanding Canvassing Codes

It is absolutely necessary for walkers to easily understand canvass result options.  A clear example of the type of confusion that can occur relates to codes often used in Call Lists.  VAN uses the code WX for Disconnected phone numbers, but phone bank volunteers often confuse the code DC (actually Deceased) for Disconnected.  If this error is not caught, then some voters who only have bad phone numbers may be marked as dead in VAN.

Another example is the canvass result Inaccessible, which is often used for houses whose front doors are inaccessible due to gates, dogs, giant spider webs, or other blockage.  However, some campaigns often lump houses with No Soliciting signs into this category too.  By replacing the code IN or Inaccessible with clear text of “Gated/No Solicit,” this tells the walker what the result means with minimal training effort.

Here is a list of the codes used in the above walk list example and their common meaning.

Code Canvass Result When to be used
NH Not Home Voter is not home, busy, or otherwise unavailable to speak.
DC Deceased Voter is dead.
LG Other Language Voter only spoke a language other than English or Spanish.
RF Refused Voter refused to speak or even open front door.  ”Get off my lawn!”
MV Moved Voter has moved from this address.  Vacant house.
CM Completed Message Completed message to voter.  (Useless for walk programs)
IN Inaccessible House is gated, has dogs, no soliciting sign, or otherwise inaccessible.
SP Spanish Voter only spoke Spanish, and walker did not.

Problems with original walk list report format:

1. Canvass Codes should be replaced with easy to understand text and check boxes.

2. Script questions should be replaced with easy to understand text and check boxes.

3. No voter history listed so walkers have no idea the type of voter they are talking to.  Is the person a solid Democrat or Republican, a regular voter, a non-voter?  This prevents message tailoring.

4. Canvass Code Deceased: Best not used for walk lists.  If the person is dead, have the walker write Dead on the walk list.  It is used too rarely to be included as an option for every listed voter.

5. Canvass Code Completed Message: Don’t use for walks.  If the walker got through the script, then a survey question should have been answered.  This code is redundant for walks, but could be used for robocalls.  When one or more survey questions are answered, VAN automatically tags that voter as Canvassed.

6. Canvass Code Spanish: Good option to have depending on the ethnic population in the region.  Useless if using bilingual walk teams who can speak to voters in English or Spanish.  Leave off if your walk teams have bilingual walkers, or if you do not plan on doing any campaign messages in Spanish.

7. Canvass Code Other Language: Same resolution as in Canvass Code Spanish.

Example of Badly Designed non-VAN Walk List

The walk list displayed in this section is one that was provided by a third-party vendor for a campaign unable to use VAN.  Unfortunately, no master key or documentation was provided to fully explain all of the columns.  This left both campaign staff and walkers guessing what each column means.  The left half of the document can be understood fairly easily with its listings of phone numbers, support levels (F=Favorable, U=Undecided, A=Against), voter name and address.  However, the wheels fall off when campaign staff try to interpret what the data on the right side of the sheet means.  The walk sheet also has no section for canvass results, additional questions beyond general support, or other relevant information that may need to be tracked.

As you can see from the markings on the sheet, walkers tried to make up for the report format’s deficiencies by adding their own canvassing codes.  However, the codes used were not consistent between walkers and volunteers.  For example, many walkers used NH for Not Home.

Third-Party Walk List

Walk List report format provided by third-party vendor not using VAN.

To make matters worse, the vendor who provided these walk sheets did not give any form of database, either online or file-based, to enter walk results either.  If the campaign wanted to mail a letter to identified supporters or undecided voters, someone had to manually copy these voters into a spreadsheet.  When walking a second round in a particular neighborhood, the walkers had to use the previously marked sheets or print out new sheets from the files provided by the vendor and remove voters already talked to by reviewing the previously marked sheets.

The irony is that these walk lists hearkened back to pre-Internet political campaigns when voter lists were kept in filing cabinets, turfs were manually cut from Mapsco books, and tracking voters in spreadsheets was the newest technological revolution to hit political campaigns.

So what is Next?

With the above examples, we illustrated some basic issues regarding walk lists.  In our follow-up article, we will discuss building custom report formats, adding municipal voter history to walk lists, and the benefits of replacing paper walk lists with tablets.