Setting up Office for the Campaign

A electoral campaign is about communications. It is a focused effort over a short time-limited period to deliver a message and generate a response to a call for a specific action.

When its election time, the clock is ticking on our efforts to deliver our message to thousands, sometimes tens of thousands or millions of voters.

Long before one puts down a qualifying fee or appoints poll watchers or is sworn into public office, a candidate has got to get their own office in order. This is written in response to a request for advice by a client who's campaign site we host at CampaignFoundations.com. I publish here on this blog in the hopes that other candidates might find it useful.

This candidate has been using a webmail service for their personal email address. They own a reasonably new computer with an installation of windows on it. But perhaps he's never faced the prospect of having to communicate with 100,000 voters all at once before.

This campaign, as are most, is on a budget. We don't have lots of money to spend on software and hardware, but we need to build an office machine capable of supporting the communication demands made by a modern campaign.

So, what are those demands, what are our requirements?

I'd recommend for any prospective candidate, building your home office (and later any office specific to your campaign) to support:

* a local email client capable of handling multiple accounts, filtering incoming mail and automating mail merges for outgoing mailings, which stores its email in a standards compliant format and permits the import and export of contact lists;

* an office suite capable of reading and writing the most common file formats, providing word processing, spreadsheet and database tools, and perhaps presentation tools;

* a modern, tab enabled secure browser;

* a real database engine (not just a spreadsheet);

* a faxmodem and software to drive it;

The recommendations to follow will deliver this functionality on a budget using mature open source tools. I am also going to make frequent mention of standards compliance and open standards. The former makes it possible for your machine and your data to interact in the world around you with other folks computers and their data. The latter is the key feature which ensures that your data remains your data and is not abandoned to avoid vendor lockin on their next upgrade which abandons support for your version of their application.

For windows, linux and macintosh environments, your cross-platform full-featured office suite of choice is OpenOffice.org. In a linux environment, offering nearly as many features and tools, but also a smaller footprint in its hardware demands are the KOffice suite and the Gnome Office tools.

The OpenDocumentFormat (ODF) used by OpenOffice applications as their native format was just adopted by the International Standards Organization as 'the international standard for office data'. Even so, OpenOffice.org's Writer can read and write the proprietary format used by Microsoft Word. Its Calc application reads and writes MS Excel spreadsheets, Its Impress tool reads and writes the powerpoint documents. While its Base will use the native open standards xml based format for its data, it can also be integrated with full power database engines like postgres or mysql or oracle using odbc drivers.

OpenOffice will handle email and mail merges between stock letters and a database. But I'd generally recommend other, more lightweight tools for day to day interaction with email.

In a windows environment, I recommend sylpheed (my own choice for a graphical email clients, though I use their linux version) or Pegasus which I am told also writes standards compliant email headers and email files. Neither is crippled or burdoned by screen space given over to advertisers to support their development.
Both are supported by an open source development community.

An email client is also included with the Mozilla browser suite. The Mozilla project has evolved quite a bit since Netscape open sourced its version 4.7 browser code in the late 90s. Its current latest and greatest version is called Seamonkey, and its seems to have lost the instability issues it picked up as Firefox and is now as stable as mozilla ever was. Its a full featured browser. I don't use its email client, its Internet Relay Chat client, its address book or hardly ever its web page composing tool. But the seamonkey browser is in daily use on my desktop. Seamonkey will install on windows, mac and linux computers. Since the mozilla release, it has been possible to open multiple 'tabs' each with a different website. Tabs keep your desktop less cluttered, more organized and save you the time of reloading pages which form the nexus of others you browse.

For faxing the media and supporters, a fax server or at least a fax modem is a valuable addition to your office setup. The only open source solution now available for a windows envirnment at the moment seems to be AsterFax, a part of the Asterisk open source PBX project. Asterisk also runs in a linux environment, which means its probably supported in mac as well, though I can't vouch for that. In a linux or macintosh environment, the tool of choice is HylaFax. I've never used the Asterisk product, though I have monitored its development from afar for a couple of years now. I used to administer a HylaFax server and can attest that it can be picky about what fax modems it likes to interact with, and that its installation and administration is not for the faint of heart or those made squeamish by a command line. Still for any one taking on a campaign in a major metropolitan city, a Congressional district or for statewide office, its an investment well worth the effort.
It will work your fax line long after you've gone to bed delivering your latest press release. It also will receive and dispatch by email incoming faxes.

The heart of any campaign is its list. The campaign can be seen as an effort to build and enhance a list. You get a voter list from the Board of Elections. Your every Voter ID effort should feed data collected about the voters in your district back into that list. A list will pay returns for every investment you make in it. You don't have the time to speak with everyone again in the weekend before election day. But a campaign can and should mobilize to touch all of its identified supporters one last time on the way to the polls.

Our Campaign Hosting Package, Plus, includes a Constituent Relationship Management application, with an access control layer permitting you to delegate appropraite access to your list to the folks on your campaign who do the work to build and enhance your data, and then use it to turn out your supporters to the polls on election day. Using our web enabled application gives you controlled and distributed access to your data and lots of built in functionality. But sometimes you want to export that data and manipulate it on your local machine where you can deal with it directly. If you or someone on your campaign has the database skills to use it, the open source database engines of choice are postgresql (for windows, macs and linux) or mysql (for linux, macs and windows machines).

Those are the basic building blocks for a campaign office, whether you operate out of a corner of your bedroom for a small municipal race, or are renting a storefront for your statewide bid. And these are the open source tools which will make it affordable to put these building blocks in place.

Consumer grade machines can now be had for $300.00. Even linux compatible hardware fax modems cost less than $80 these days. For the price of a small learning curve, you can even avoid the cost of a proprietary operating system. DistroWatch will link you to the latest and greatest linux distributions for the desktop (or other places). I use Debian in my home office, on the notebook computer I travel with and on the servers which host your website with CampaignFoundations.com. Its not bleeding edge, but its stable and runs until the power goes out or the processor fries.

Building a Foundation under your Campaign means putting the infrastructure in place. An office, phone and fax service and the ability to travel among your constituency are the first steps to fulfilling on that. I hope these pointers have been helpful.