A Glossary for Political Direct Mail

political direct mail

Political Direct Mail Cheat Sheet

The world of political direct mail involves a lot of terms you don’t hear in everyday.  This post will take you through the acronyms, strange words and technical terms that you need to be a pro when it comes to your political direct mail program and direct mail production.

Mail Panel

The mail panel is exactly what it sounds like.  It’s that (usually) white space where return address, mailing address and postage can all be found.  The USPS has certain specifications for the mail panel (e.g. on oversize flats, it must be placed at the top of the mailer) and your production person or the mail house should review the panel before going to press to ensure you’re up to code.


BRM means “business reply mail,” and is a pre-printed reply card that includes pre-paid postage so that recipients can easily return the card.  Sometimes also referred to as a BRC (business reply card), these devices are handy when you’re trying to get a little more information about your target universe, or asking them to sign a petition.  For political direct mail purposes, a 5% rate of return is pretty great – just be sure when you’re budgeting for a mailer that includes a BRM that you budget both for the BRM permit set-up (no fun, I know, but unavoidable unless you have a mail house that’s willing to let you use their permit) and the estimated return postage.


Most political direct mail doesn’t come to you with a stamp on it.  Rather, it uses a bulk rate or non-profit permit that’s printed right on the mail panel – that permit appears where a stamp would normally be, and is called the indicia.


SCF refers to a Sectional Center Facility, which is a processing and distribution center for the USPS.  SCFs are one step removed from local post offices, versus USPS Network Distribution Centers (NDC), which are two steps removed and serve a wider geographic area than SCFs.  Most political direct mail is delivered to an SCF to cut down on mail delivery times and postage rates.

Red-Tag Political Mail

Mail that qualifies as political direct mail gets special, expedited service from the USPS, and is essentially treated as First-Class mail.  This means that we generally estimate that red-tag political mail will be in people’s mailboxes 2-4 days after it’s dropped at the SCF.  The USPS definition of political mail can be found here, and for a longer discussion of red-tag, you can check out Michele Hermanson’s more detailed article.


The mailing universe refers to the recipients of your mailer.  The number of recipients on your list is your universe size.


Not surprisingly, political direct mail that is smaller is generally cheaper to send.  Letter-size mail does not have to be in an envelope, it just has to fall within a certain set of specs.  Currently, the max letter-rate size is 6-1/8 x 11-1/2 inches, which means that mail at that size or smaller will qualify for lower postage rates (letter-rate postage) than larger mail.

Oversize Flat

A lot of the political direct mail that people get each election cycle comes in the form of these large flats. Basically, they pick up where the letter-size mail leaves off.  These mailers run larger that 6-1/8 x 11-1/2 inches and should max out at 12 x 15 inches.

ECR Sorting

Enhanced Carrier Route sorting or ECR sorting refers to the way political direct mail is sorted prior to delivery at the USPS.  Essentially, it means that the mailhouse sorts your mail in advance for an individual postal worker’s route.  This means the USPS has to do less with your mail in order to get it to the right place.  It’s a really great way to keep the cost of postage down. That said, for it to be truly effective, you need to have a certain level of geographic density in your data.


It used to be that when your political direct mail left the printer and mail shop, there wasn’t much you could do to find out where it was in the process beyond collecting paperwork that showed the USPS had received a delivery.  These days tracking beyond that paperwork is standard, and the USPS is actually requiring it.

Intelligent Barcodes

Intelligent barcodes are a great way to track a mailer’s progress through the system.  The mailshop includes these barcodes on the piece and the USPS scans them as they move through the SCF facility.  It’s important to note, the USPS does not scan every piece of mail, so you should be looking for scans to show up, but not expecting that the USPS scan number will match your universe size.


Intelligent barcodes are great, but they don’t track the actual delivery of your mail.  That’s where seeds come in.  Seeds are specific addresses that are added into your mailing list.  The recipients at those additional addresses are able to log into a system and confirm that your mailer arrived in their mailbox.  What’s more, they will often provide you with information about the condition of the mailer upon arrival.


Bugs are little graphics you’ll often see on mailers.  They are not related to the content of the mailer and are meant to be unobtrusive (thus their small size).  Most commonly, you’ll find a union bug and a recycle bug on Democratic direct mail.  The union bug indicates that the piece was printed in a union shop, and it will tell you which shop did the work.  The recycle bug is simply a recycling symbol.  Other common bugs include FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council Certified) and soy ink.

Gang Printing

Gang printing, or gang-run printing, means that you run two or more mailers on press at the same time in order to garner some economy of scale.  In other words, say you have a universe of just 2,000 voters, and your mail program has a total of 6 different mail pieces.  Printing just 2,000 pieces will be relatively expensive, but if you run all 6 mailers at once, you’ll be printing 12,000 mailers, which will give you a bit of a break on the price.

This glossary should be enough to get you started on the road to political direct mail whiz, though if you have questions, feel free to drop us a line!

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