Voters in the Crosshairs

Organize the whole state, so that every Whig can be brought to the polls . . . divide the county into small districts and appoint in each a sub- committee . . . make a perfect list of voters and ascertain with certainty for whom they will vote . . . and on election day see that every Whig is brought to the polls.

Abraham Lincoln, Illinois State Register, February 21, 1840


Campaigns and elections are the lifeblood of American democracy and the principal means by which citizens form and express political opinions. Any less than full and equal electoral participation puts democracy at risk. Today electoral participation is neither full nor equal, and it is getting worse. Paradoxically, new campaign technologies and practices bear significant responsibility for declining participation. While making it easier to communicate with voters and to create Lincoln's "perfect list," direct mail, databases of voters, polling, and targeted advertising also depress voter turnout and fragment the electorate. The source of this conflict lies in the combination of the technology, the new class of political consultants it has empowered, and the marketplace institutions to which the management of campaigns are increasingly relegated (like so many other public goods).

The paradox demonstrates a fundamental American dilemma: the conflict between equality and liberty and, more specifically, the conflict between a politics based on equality of voice and an economics based on inequality of resources. To the extent that voice depends on resources, an unregulated political market guarantees political inequality. The new technology has given those with more resources access to even greater voice. As a result, many elections have become for most citizens exercises in choosing between two power blocs representing similar if not identical resource-rich interests.

Not surprisingly, fewer Americans are taking part. Election scholar Walter Dean Burnham reports voter turnout in presidential elections outside the South de clined from 73 percent in 1960 to 54 percent in 1988. Participation expert Sidney Verba found that turnout for local elections during a similar period declined from 47 percent to 35 percent.

Verba also found that the well-known bias that favors higher electoral turnout among wealthier voters is even greater for other forms of participation. Families with incomes below $35,000 comprise 54.6 percent of the eligible electorate but only 50.3 percent of voters. On the other hand, those earning more than $50,000 make up 24.6 percent of the electorate and 28.1 percent of voters. In campaign hours, the lower income group contributes 35.5 percent, while the upper income group contributes 50.1 percent. In campaign dollars, the lower income group gives only 16.5 percent, while the upper income group contributes 71 percent. Indeed, the top 10 percent contributes 50 percent of all the money that supports political campaigns.

Because politicians pay more attention to the people who put them in office, this pattern of participation means the interests of a major portion of the electorate, if not a majority, are consistently left out of the political calculus.

The mechanisms by which elections are conducted are a kind of electoral "means of production" for the polity. Electoral mechanics define who takes part, how they take part, what resources are needed to take part, and thus whose interests the outcome will reflect. The introduction of radical new communications tech nologies has dramatically altered the way in which elections are conducted. This revolution, in turn, has altered the political system itself.


Hunters and Gatherers

Since the 1830s, American political campaigns have pursued one of two basic strategies: vote "gathering" that maximizes turnout or vote "hunting" that minimizes it. During the nineteenth century, political parties "gathered" votes by using marches, rallies, patronage, and a partisan press to mobilize known supporters; in 1896 turnout outside the South reached a peak of 86 percent. Early in the twentieth century, however, an establishment fearful of populism and new immigrants used restrictive voting measures, such as voter registration, as well as a nonpartisan press and new advertising and broadcast technologies in a "hunt" for the "responsible" but undecided voter. By 1920, turnout outside the South had declined to a new low of 57 percent. With the political upheavals of the 1930s, vote gathering resumed as newly organized unions and a revitalized Democratic Party generated new political resources that were applied to renewed voter mobilization. Turnout increased, reaching 73 percent in 1940.

Modern campaigning, which began with polling and television in the 1960s, marked a return to vote hunting. Although polling developed from demographic studies by Gallup and Roper in the 1930s, it reached public acceptance only in the early 1960s when Lou Harris achieved fame as John F. Kennedy's pollster. Polling en abled politicians to learn voter opinions without attending to constituency leaders or the voters themselves. It became possible to "know" the electorate without having a relationship with it. Polling also created a role for the electoral expert whose "expertise" derived not from political or organizational experience but from mastery of the new technology.

Television transformed political campaigning along with much of American life beginning with the 1952 Eisenhower campaign. Television was also credited with Kennedy's presidential victory over Richard Nixon in 1960. Television transformed JFK's state primary victories into national events, creating a momentum Democrats could not ignore, and gave the photogenic Kennedy a critical edge over Nixon. By the 1970s, television advertising had become a key element in most major campaigns, as well as the principal factor driving up their cost. Television also introduced a second technological expert--the "media adviser" typified by long-time Democratic campaign consultants Tony Schwartz or Joe Napolitan.


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Computers, which had been used to support polling, began to have a separate influence in the 1970s. Computer technology made it possible to develop direct mail fundraising campaigns on a large scale but with precise targeting. About the same time, marketing companies learned to combine census data and polling information, enabling marketers to target consumers by zip code according to their lifestyle and preferences. As voter registration lists and other electoral data became computerized at the state, county, and city level, microcomputer technology spread and there developed an industry of over 2,500 firms providing each campaign with targeted, custom-made lists. Consequently, voter contact strategies are targeted down to the level of the individual voter.

In 1984 Frank Tobe, a leading practitioner of computer targeting, described his mission:

Campaign managers . . . need to be aware of the exciting, new delivery products for campaign messages afforded by today's computer technologies and decide which are most relevant and cost effective for the race they are working on . . . computer-prepared laser letters, pre-filled-in absentee ballots, computer-generated slate cards, tasteful and stylish response devices, urgent looking (get out the vote) messages, polished and authentic looking endorsement letters, and hundreds of other computer prepared products all improved by some level of personalization far beyond simple inclusion of the recipients' name or city into the copy.

Meanwhile, modern campaigns have become even more expensive while voter turnout has fallen to a new low. Campaign expenditures climbed from $200 million, or $2.80 a vote, in 1964 to $2.7 billion, or $29.48 a vote, in 1988, but voter turnout outside the South fell from 73 percent to 54 percent.


The Professionals

Each technological innovation produced a new expert--or "consultant"--who provided access to the new tool for a fee. In the absence of strong parties or public regulation of campaign activities, candidates made deals directly with consultants. No longer was running for office an organizational activity; it was now an "entrepreneurial" endeavor. The premium was on the cash to buy expertise rather than the loyalty to command organization. The campaign manager or press agent of yore, often a party operative or associate of the candidate or his supporters, was replaced by a paid professional.

The arrival of television in the early 1950s provided professional campaign consulting with its real kick-off. In The Rise of Political Consultants, Larry Sabato noted that by 1972, 168 out of 208 candidates for state office were reported as having hired professionals, as had 61 out of 67 U.S. Senate candidates, 38 out of 42 gubernatorial candidates, and 30 out of 37 candidates for attorney general. By 1986, after the introduction of computer targeting, consultant Frank Lutz reports that 85 percent of 138 senatorial or gubernatorial candidates hired professional pollsters, 94 percent had professional media consultants, and 4 percent had no consultants at all.

Ironically, the rise of the consultants was also spurred by the campaign finance reforms of the 1970s and the 1976 Supreme Court decision, Buckley v. Valeo, that declared spending limits unconstitutional. The legislative reforms attempted to regulate contributions rather than expenditures, thus trying to control supply rather than demand. The unabated demand for money, however, simply created a premium for fundraisers with expertise in the new requirements. The contribution limits also placed a premium on the ability to raise large sums of money in small amounts from many donors. Direct mail fundraising thus received a new boost, as did political action committees (PACs). The legacy of this legislation was to make campaigning still more expensive and the role of consultants still more critical.

The way in which consultants are compensated also drives up campaign costs. Consultants are usually paid a flat campaign fee plus a commission based on the cost of the services the campaign (the consultant) purchases. For example, a consultant paid a flat fee of $100,000 will also receive a commission of 15 percent to 20 percent of all the money spent on the television buy, direct mail, and even billboards. A typical television buy of $300,000 and direct mail expense of $250,000 will return the consultant an additional $120,000. Consultants also often own interests in their subcontractors (printers, mail houses, telemarketing firms, and so on), providing them with additional income. A consultant who produces a mailer for $.32 per piece will charge the client $.40 per piece. If a campaign sends, say, 27 mailings of 75,000 brochures each, the consultant nets an extra $162,000. Since top consultants handle from five to ten campaigns simultaneously, their earnings potential is impressive indeed.

The personal quality of consulting has inhibited the development of a competitive market. A winning reputation is so important that a candidate's capacity to raise money and discourage competition often depends on hiring the right consultant at the right time. Absent political parties with the resources to take advantage of the new campaign tools, and absent reforms to limit spending, consultants are able to sell their expertise for "all the market will bear."

The thrall in which many consultants hold candidates also gives these professionals greater control over the content of a campaign than candidates themselves. In a 1989 survey, 44 percent of political consultants interviewed re ported that their candidates were uninvolved in setting the issue priorities in their own campaigns, and 66 percent reported candidates to be uninvolved in determining the tactics.

Consultants have thus come to play multiple roles: campaign manager, press agent, party, and even candidate. But for most political consultants, the motivation to get out the vote is private, not public, gain. For these professionals, politics is not a public domain in which each citizen is to have an equal voice. It is a business in which market principles apply and there is one criteria of success-- winning. From the consultants' perspective, winning does not depend on who is right, who is the better candidate, or what is in the best interest of the community. As Stanley Foster Reed, founder of the trade journal Campaigns and Elections, put it in his 1980 premiere issue:

What makes the difference between winning and losing a political campaign? Is it the same thing that makes the difference between succeeding and failing in business? Yes! Management makes the difference. Management of resources: money, media, people.

Of course, candidates, parties, and constituency leaders also want to win, but this desire dovetails with the long-term interests of their political community. The consultant's calculus, on the other hand, considers only will it win and does it make money?

Although the consequences of this marketplace thinking for American democracy are serious and far-reaching, they are not the result of insidious forces or a malevolent cabal. They are the result of intelligent people making conscious and "utility maximizing" decisions under the current arrangements that govern American political campaigns.


Campaigns Old and New

The guiding principle of modern campaign management is "bang for the buck" --the allocation of each dollar to achieve maximum possible effect in the current election. Traditional campaigns took a more long-term, investment approach, building the party infrastructure through voter registration and precinct organization. The new campaign methods not only raise costs and empower consultants, they also require that money be spent in different ways. Today's campaign strategies have reached a new level of sophistication, where only those voters most likely to vote are wooed, messages change with demographics, issues are condensed into fleeting televised images, and campaign organizations are nearly as ephemeral.

Targeting I: Reducing the Universe. Traditional campaign strategy would expand the electorate and motivate voters to participate. A voter registration drive, for example, would increase potential support in the district by targeting pockets of unregistered supporters based on the density of partisan registration. Each campaign would then target its own partisans for mobilization and a portion of the other party's adherents for persuasion. Both campaigns would target unaffiliated voters for persuasion. This logic would lead to the targeting of 60 percent of registered voters for mobilization by one of the campaigns and 40 percent of registered voters for persuasion by both campaigns. An election day get-out-the-vote program would then focus on turning out all identified supporters to vote.

This was the strategy Senator Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign used in targeting California Latinos for pre-primary voter registration, especially in East Los Angeles. The extraordinary turnout from this community was a key factor in Kennedy's primary win. Today such a registration effort would never happen, on grounds that historically lower turnout among Latinos means that pre cious campaign dollars should be invested in persuading more-likely voters.

For the last couple decades, campaign consultants have been perfecting ways to restrict the electorate by "reducing the universe" of voters, long before Ed Rollins caused a furor by claiming he paid New Jersey ministers not to encourage their congregation members to vote in the gubernatorial race last September. The computerization of voter registration files and emergence of "list vendors" who purchase tapes of these files and convert them into customized, campaign-specific lists make possible this new approach to targeting. Matching voter files with tapes of phone directories, ethnic surname dictionaries, county assessor records, and voter turnout reports makes it possible to generate lists of voters individually profiled by their party affiliation, age, gender, marital status, homeowner status, ethnicity, and frequency of voting. Consultant Matt Reese explains how this information is used:

Targeting is a process of excluding people who are not "profitable" to work, so that resources are adequate to reach prime voters with enough intensity to win them. Targeting provides an ultimate "lift" to the voter contact process, allowing maximum concentration of resources to a minimum universe.

Voter registration, for example, is rarely considered because newly registered voters are less likely to turn out than established voters. Also, it requires a "ground force" of volunteers or paid registrars. In the absence of an ongoing program, there are numerous problems of management, recruitment, and quality control in creating such a team for a single campaign.

The effects of this new campaign ethos can be seen in a hypothetical district, where 55 percent of the registered voters are Democrats, 35 percent are Republicans, and 10 percent are independent or "decline to state." The first step in applying the new strategy is to buy computer tapes that describe the district by party and by voter turnout. Of all registered voters, 24 percent have no record of voting, suggesting that they are gone, and 39 percent vote only occasionally, mainly in presidential elections. These voters are ignored because they are unlikely to turn out unless stimulated. The likely voters, a bedrock 37 percent of registered voters who vote in most elections, are the prime targets of the campaign. Among these, priority is assigned to the Democratic 10 percent, Republican 5 percent, and independent 2 percent judged to be "swing" voters based on their electoral or individual histories (a Republican living with a Democrat, for example). This 17 percent is targeted for persuasion and becomes the heart of the campaign, the real determiners of the issues the campaign will address. The remaining 20 percent of the electorate who are likely voters and are likely to be loyal to their parties are contacted mainly to inform them of the candidate's identity and affiliation. They are not mobilized because they are regular voters.

As of election day, 63 percent of registered voters will not have been contacted by anyone. If, as is typical, only 60 percent of the eligible electorate were registered, 78 percent of the eligible voters in the district would never be contacted. These uncontacted voters are far more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status than those who are contacted. They never hear from a campaign and thus will likely stay at home on election day or vote the way they always have. The assumption that past voting behavior is predictive of future behavior becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. With both campaigns in last June's Los Angeles mayoral election using this kind of reasoning, it is not so surprising that, despite the city's troubles, less than 25 percent of the Los Angeles electorate turned out to vote.

Targeting II: The Segmented Electorate. After "reducing the universe" limits the campaign to just 37 percent of the registered voters, further targeting segments it for assault by direct mail. In a recent interview, Richie Ross, consultant to California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, described the process:

Once a consultant goes to work for a candidate, he or she will cross-ref erence the district's population over and over, until the desired geo-de mographic groups have been isolated. These groups are always exceedingly narrow. The number of demographic groups targeted in a specific campaign ranges from 60 to 1,200 with the precise figure depending on the level of office being contested and the amount of money a candidate has to spend. . . . A typical congressional campaign might have around 300 groups targeted.

Information on each of these subgroups is matched with polling data, and the campaign messages are developed to deliver what Matt Reese calls "different--and compelling--truths" to those various segments.

Instead of a single campaign with a single theme that unifies a candidate's supporters, parallel campaigns emerge, each articulating themes narrow enough to appeal to the peculiar characteristics of each sub-constituency. In a recent California Assembly campaign, for example, married Catholic homeowners learned that the candidate supported family values, while single Jewish women under age 40 found the candidate had been consistently pro-choice.

Although direct mail was originally developed for small-donor fundraising, consultants adapted it to the delivery of the segmented message because it is far less expensive than television and can market politics to precisely the right voters.

Far from aggregating the interests of the electorate, the new campaign thus serves only to further disperse them.

The 30-Second Spot. As television has driven up campaign costs and given new currency to consultants, it has devalued the quality and content of political discussion. The quest for the six o'clock news sound bite and the reduction of political debate to visual-emotional images that can be conveyed in 30 seconds have been major factors in redefining American political discourse.

To the extent that voters depend on campaigns for political information, the "30 second rule" allows the medium to obstruct the message. Thus the emptiness Ameri cans observe in their political dialogue may be mechanical as well as substantive in origin. Even worse, the 30-second bite has been a very effective tool for the negative campaigning that increasingly takes the place of issue differentiation between candidates who target the same voters.

Developments in targeting and direct mail, however, have made the economics of television advertising problematic for all but the largest campaigns and those in which district boundaries coincide with a particular media market. Television is so expensive because it is billed according to the size of the entire market a particular channel reaches. For example, if a candidate for the Los Angeles City Council in a district with 100,00 voters runs a television commercial, he or she pays for reaching all 10 million people in the Los Angeles basin.

A revival of televised political advertising may occur if it can become a visual version of direct mail. Newer wireless cable technologies and the proliferation of local and specialized carriers may both lower the cost and offer access to highly targeted audiences currently possible only through the mail.

Instant Organizations. When consultants determine a need for people-intensive tactics, they turn to "instant organization." For example, canvassing may be required to determine the identities of undecided swing voters who may then receive calls or mailings customized to their concerns. Or an election may be so close--and well funded--that occasional voters will be targeted for get-out-the-vote work. With atrophied party structures, weakened constituent organizations, and the increasingly lost art of building a campaign structure to recruit, train, and direct volunteers, consultants subcontract to purveyors of "instant organization," or IO.

Providers of IO hire a paid staff to run field operations that dissolve at the end of the campaign, leaving candidate and consultant free of costly maintenance and accountability problems. IO generally entails paid door-to-door or telephone canvassers using prepared scripts to solicit voter support and who are paid on a per-head or bounty basis. The results of their contacts are then computerized and dovetailed with mailing or recontact strategies. That such efforts can be effective--for vote gathering as well as vote hunting--is demonstrated by the 1986 campaign of California Senator Alan Cranston. Six weeks before the election, after Cranston and his opponent, Ed Zschau, had spent $15 million each on television and direct mail, Cranston committed $300,000 to an IO get-out-the-vote effort. Computerized targeting identified "unlikely" voters who were supporters. The only work done by the precinct was turning them out to vote. The 160,000 unlikely voters who did turn out gave Cranston the 110,000 vote edge he needed to win.

In the absence of an institutional structure to connect with, however, almost all of these organizations have been abandoned by the candidate "the morning after" the election. Candidates' agendas shift to raising money to pay off campaign debt (and accumulate a new war chest), accommodating interest groups, and insulating themselves against opposition in the next election. This development, in turn, induces cynicism among organizers and volunteers who generally want to have a longer term role in policy as well as politics.


The "New" Campaign and American Democracy

These developments have eroded the quality of American democracy in four important ways.

Decline and Bias in Voter Turnout. New campaign methods undermine and bias voter turnout by failing to communicate with all but the most likely voters. This denies many people the resources and motivation they need in order to participate--particularly voters at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Resources include political information and skills; motivation includes attitudes that encourage participation, a belief in one's political efficacy, and a clear political interest. Citizens of higher socioeconomic status generally have greater access to both resources and motivation. Sidney Verba found, however, that the motivational deficit can be compensated for when "group consciousness" makes a voter's interest in participation clearer or provides a heightened sense of efficacy. The resource deficit can be offset by organizational affiliation, which allows the activist to gain political skills and information. This explains the impact that unions had on American workers in the 1930s and that many Protestant churches have on African-American constituencies today.

Diminished voter contact also inhibits the formation of political opinion. In The Reasoning Voter, political scientist Sam Popkin reported that voters use the information they receive from campaigns, Popkin says, because they have limited information about government and are "open to influence by campaigners who offer them. . . better explanations of the ways in which government ac tivities affect them."

The voter's understanding of campaign issues is also directly related to the amount of debate to which he or she is exposed. Popkin found that "the more the candidates talked about an issue [in a campaign] and the greater their differences on it, the more accurately it was perceived." The logic of the "reduced universe" denies this information to the voters who most need it.

Finally, the "dehumanization" of voter contact techniques damages efforts to turn people out. Campaign activities that depend on popular participation for their effectiveness--such as voter registration and get-out-the-vote programs--have been widely dismissed as not cost-effective. Yet studies like those of political scientist Ray Wolfinger have verified that people are most likely to respond to other people. Wolfinger found that active precinct increased voter turnout in New Haven by as much as 10 percent.

Decline and Bias in Political Activism. Because the new campaign devalues all forms of political activism except for giving money, the role of the political volunteer has been all but eliminated. This dampens overall levels of participation and limits it to those with the financial resources to become contributors.

The decline of the volunteer has closed off an important source for recruitment of political leadership, and many people drawn to politics today must seek entry instead as employees or interns. The reduced demand for volunteer activity has also likely contributed to a decline in membership in political organizations, according to Verba, from 8 percent of the citizenry in 1967 to 4 percent in 1987.

The Weakening of Civic Society. The new campaign has undercut broad-based democratic organizations through which individual citizens have traditionally participated in public life. Traditional democratic organizations, which rely heavily on volunteers, once served as important "schools for democracy" where citizens acquired resources and motivation for active political participation. These organizations--parties, unions, political clubs, and civic groups--help formulate political choices and provide organizational mechanisms to encourage voting. The atrophy of these associations and the rise of Washington-based lobbies that do little more than seek members' money through direct mail both reflect and reinforce the rising influence of money and the declining importance of citizen participation.

Erosion of Common Interest. Segmented voter interests have undermined incentives for political leaders to articulate and act upon those interests citizens do share. Indeed, intensity of political voice seems to have become di rectly related to narrowness of vision, while breadth of vision is related to weakness of voice. Much of this "narrowness" can be directly traced to the new campaign and its approach to "political marketing."

The reduction of individual voters to demographic abstractions has even dampened the incentive of citizens to intelligently translate their own competing interests into coherent politics. A voter receives one piece of mail as a married Catholic, another as a 30-year-old professional, and still another as an "environmentally concerned" citizen. Each piece of propaganda asserts the overwhelming importance of its own priorities and course of action. The set of concerns that least enters the campaign are those of citizens of lower socioeconomic status. As a result, the marginal voters are rendered invisible, as their concerns go unrepresented, and silent, as their capacity to articulate those concerns remains undeveloped. Thus instead of providing an experience in "strong democratic talk" that helps to define and articulate common interests, the new campaign is a political cacophony in which one coalition of dissonant and powerful interests seeks to defeat another. This offers a grim prospect for the future of American democracy.


Restructuring Voice

The introduction of new political technologies has crippled the American attempt to combine equal voice in politics with unequal resources in economics. Technology, however, is only a set of tools. The critical factor is the "free market" approach to the management of politics and elections. Weak parties and an ineffective method of governing elections has allowed the new tools to enhance the power of those with the resources to buy access to them.

Establishing equality of political voice for all Americans will require major institutional change: a reconstruction of the political parties and the public allocation of campaign resources.

Despite their weakened condition, political parties remain one of the few institutions with which a significant number of Americans still identify. The rule of thumb in most campaigns is that 80 percent of voters will vote for the party with which they are registered. Political parties also have the framework of a democratic structure through which participation can take place. They are uniquely positioned to have a strategic interest in gaining more adherents and thus in expanding the electorate.

Partisan "reconstruction" would begin with measures enabling them to build their own financial base from resources unavailable to candidates running for office. These resources could be used as the political capital to invest in the following partisan infrastructure:

  • party-owned computerized voter files available to all endorsed candidates;
  • voter registration drives targeted on the non-participating voter with the intent of expanding support for the party;
  • ongoing precinct organization available to support endorsed candidates but not dependent on them for finance;
  • "generic" media campaigns targeted at the non-participating electorate encouraging them to join the party, etc.

Reconstructed parties could then become vehicles for currently disempowered interests to reenter the political process and serve as a means for rebuilding a politics of inclusion and common interest.

Second, the cost of campaigns must be reduced and equalized, attacking the demand side of the equation by allocating the availability of political resources in an equitable fashion. The mail, the radio waves, and the television airwaves belong to the public, and access to them by political campaigns--as to any limited public space--should be allocated by the public in the public interest.

In other words, bona fide candidates should receive equitable but limited access to the mail, radio, and television. This would limit the need for funds, soft and hard, thereby reducing the incentive to raise them. Public finance could be provided to campaigns agreeing to operate within this framework and denied to others. This would avoid problems created by constitutional inhibitions to limitations on campaign spending per se and yet reduce the incentive for ceaseless, seemingly limitless, fundraising. Limiting what could be purchased and the money available to purchase it could force candidates to turn back toward volunteers, parties, and other organizations able to provide the human power, which could then provide the "edge" in winning a campaign.

The paradoxical impact of the new technology is captured most clearly by the authors of The Electronic Commonwealth:

Here we come to an essential irony about the impact of the computer age on our democracy. In theory, the computer is a vast force for equalizing access to information: no information is so remote or closely held as to be unobtainable by the average citizen. In practice, however, the computer tends to widen the information gap between economic classes.

The political challenge which we face is to gain control over the consequences of our own technology, finding ways to use it to bring the goal of a democracy of "equal voices" ever closer to reality. It is, however, only through a mastery of the politics of our time that we can hope to succeed.

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