Republicans Turn to Open Source Asterisk

Open source software is being used today by all types of companies and organizations—even the Republican Party is an adopter.

The Republican National Committee (RNC), which has already embraced the open source Asterisk VoIP IP-PBX (define), is ramping up its usage as the next election cycle nears.

Chad Barth, vice president of business development at SmarTech, described the details of the RNC’s Asterisk deployment during a session at last week’s IT360 conference held in Toronto. SmarTech is a tech vendor providing IT services to the RNC, and helped to build out its Asterisk based phone system.

The RNC isn’t using Asterisk simply to make calls. It’s also using the technology to track voter contact and survey results.

“Political campaigns rely on identification to help get people to turn out on Election Day,” Barth said. “Person-to-person contact is often most effective as opposed to mass mailings.”

Part of that contact is by way of the phone, which the RNC also leverages to ask voters survey questions. The RNC found it was losing voter contact information because its volunteers were not able to accurately capture all of the call information, Barth said. He added that volunteers had to manually enter survey response, which wasn’t a successful approach. As much as 40 percent of all survey information was lost due to the manual data entry process.

Barth said that the RNC first began experimenting with Asterisk as a solution in California as part of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2006 gubernatorial bid. In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, the effort expanded and included an Asterisk system together with an XML application to collect data.

The RNC solution uses Asterisk on the backend and SIP (define) compliant phones from telecom vendor Grandstream. Barth explained that the RNC phone survey program runs through the phone itself with questions and possible responses displayed on the phone. That technology enables RNC volunteers to record voter responses directly on the phone. The survey also includes dynamic question branching logic, which allows the survey to jump to another question or to the end of the survey, depending on which answer the respondent selected.

“What this system allowed us to do was to capture call information for every single call that was going out,” Barth said. “It was such a benefit to our ground game operations. “We didn’t win the election, but it was still a benefit for us.”

Data from each user session was captured and sent back to a central database. In addition to survey responses, the RNC was able to capture call detail information about length of the calls, which helped to track productivity.

The RNC further expanded the Asterisk-based system during the January 2010 Senate election for the Massachusetts seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy. In that contest the Republicans did prevail. In the phone surveys for the Massachusetts election, the Asterisk system was capturing as many as 20 records for each voter the volunteers called, Barth said.

For the upcoming congressional election cycle, Barth noted that the RNC would be expanding the phone system to be able to capture inbound information as well. To date, the system has only been used to track outbound calling efforts.

While Asterisk itself is an open source system that could potentially also be leveraged by the Democratic Party, the entire RNC survey solution is not open source.

Barth explained to that the actual survey application is a proprietary development that is licensed for use by RNC.

Sean Michael Kerner is a senior editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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