After months of growing his business out of his Providence basement, Steve
Adler, co-founder of Voter Activation Network, knew it was time to take the
business to a new level when his electricity bill started running above $600
The six-person company provides Web-based, paper or Palm Pilot
technology for use by door-to-door canvassers. With its main offices in
Cambridge, Mass., the company also has a smaller local office on
Providence’s East Side, housing just Adler and the server where the very
sensitive data is stored.
Adler is confident in saying that the business offers the best Web-based
voter files out there and that it has the largest market share within
the emerging industry.
Adler and partner Mark Sullivan met just a few years ago as consultants
working for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. Sullivan had been hired to write
a program for the group, while Adler was handling the network itself.
With more than a day of troubleshooting needed to get the system working
smoothly, Adler mentioned his experience in Web database development. A
few weeks later, Sullivan, who had some political experience, called
with a business proposition.
Voter Activation Network was born out of that chance meeting.
The company now has a presence in 22 states, having added Connecticut
just two weeks ago, and except for Pennsylvania, is being used by groups
in all of the toss-up “battleground states” where political pundits
know this year’s presidential election will be decided.
Voter Activation’s first client was the Iowa Democratic Party, which
signed on in late 2001. Eventually, each of the serious contenders for
the Democratic presidential nomination would sign on for the service.
“We knew we had a flexible, fast system that allowed for ease of use,”
Adler said. “But getting into Iowa and setting up that first network, we
finally got an idea of how incompetent the competition was.”
The Providence file server is where all the information intersects,
although what exactly certain groups can access is highly guarded. After
the primary, the Iowa Democratic Party allowed all the campaigns access
into their customized Voter Activation Network, which included a list
of all 1.8 million registered voters in the state and the more than
100,000 Iowans known to have attended a Democratic caucus between 1980
If the company were approached by a Republican-leaning group, Adler said his company would politely decline the work.
“At the end of the day, you really do need to take a side in all of this,” Adler said.
Today, one of the company’s largest clients is America Coming Together, a
Democratic voter mobilization group working in 17 states to target
undecided voters with thousands of paid and volunteer canvassers. Voter
Activation allows those canvassers to input detailed information about
voters into a database that can be searched in an astounding amount of
Beyond looking to call up voters in a certain precinct, lists can be
broken down by a mix-and-match set of demographics ranging from whether a
voter is likely married or single, to whether a voter is likely a dog
or cat owner. Lists culled from places such as the ranks of the AFL-CIO,
or Sierra Club memberships, can also be cross-referenced.
With thousands of pieces of information being added daily – whether
through Adler’s soon-to-be patented scannable bar code technology or by
docking Palm Pilots into cradles at the end of a day – Adler said his
company holds some of the most pertinent pieces of voter information
just a few short months before Nov. 2 – Election Day.
“The scale is unprecedented,” Adler said. “These key undecided voters,
and there aren’t many of them, are being targeted by both parties. Come
Election Day, we’re going to play a huge role in one of the biggest
get-out-and-vote drives ever in this country by being able to see
alongside exit polling who’s come out and voted already.”
Since Iowa’s caucuses, business has spread mostly by word-of-mouth.
Adler said one of the recent sales he was especially proud of was to
Michigan’s Democratic Party, which had been offered a copy of a
competitor’s online voter system for free through the national party.
“They took a look at it and decided there wasn’t as much flexibility
and it didn’t offer the unlimited number of attributes our system can
provide,” Adler said. Recently, technology was added to the Palm Pilots
some networks use for data entry, allowing for canvassers to have
immediate access to mapping capabilities, or a series of short “talking
points” geared to a particular voter.
Over the last year, the duo has taken on another four employees, all
programmers to continue the constant evolution of the software and
Post-election, Adler said both men believe they’ll be able to find new
business on a fairly large scale for databased surveying distributed
over the Web for marketing purposes.