Over the past 24 hours, a dispute over voter data has erupted in the Democratic presidential primary. The Democratic National Committee has suspended access to critical voter files for Bernie Sanders’ campaign team after revelations that the campaign inappropriately accessed voter data of the Hillary Clinton campaign. The data was accessed due to a software glitch in the NGP VAN Votebuilder system, a voter database software administered by D.C.-based tech company NGP VAN.
In the fallout from the controversy has sparked debate between the Sanders campaign and the DNC, with the Sanders campaign demanding their access to their own voter database be reinstated or they would file an injunction in federal court, and accusing the DNC of “sabotage” on behalf of the Clinton campaign. There has also been thorough political analysis over the conduct of Sanders staffers, one of whom has since been fired from the campaign, as well as some confusion over how NGP VAN provides data access to campaigns.
So what exactly is NGP VAN?
With the voter file, a campaign can access a registered voter’s past voting history, their address and contact information.
The D.C.-based software-as-a-service (SaaS) company specializes in providing campaign software to progressive campaign organizations. In addition to fundraising, social media and compliance tools, the company provides access to vast amounts of voter data across the United States. As the sole distributor of the DNC’s voter file, the company’s database is a powerful and valuable tool for Democratic campaigns. With the voter file, a campaign can access a registered voter’s past voting history, their address and contact information.
As a campaign contacts voters, they will carefully record responses in their own NGP VAN account. Knowing whether a voter is likely to vote and supports your candidate will make your operation run more smoothly and efficiently on election day. And having all of that data carefully compiled in an online database can make or break a voter turnout operation.
Over the course of a campaign, volunteers and staff will personally talk to voters and ask whether or not they are supporting a candidate. Voter preferences are often assessed on a 1-5 scale, a 1 being extremely likely to vote for your candidate on election day, and a 5 meaning they are voting for someone else. These responses are recorded by campaigns in the NGP VAN database. In the weeks leading up to, and on election day, a campaign will reconnect with all of their “ones” to make sure they are going to vote, know where their polling place is etc.
NGP VAN has many tools in which a campaign can sort, view and track data. For instance, a campaign can narrow down a list of every “two,” or likely voter for their candidate, in Manchester, N.H., print a list with their phone numbers or addresses, and have volunteers call those people or knock on their door to try to convince them to become “ones.” This data is extremely valuable to the campaign, and is the heart of their field operation.
This data is extremely valuable to the campaign, and is the heart of their field operation.
The accusations leveled against the Sanders campaign, and that, to some degree, they have admitted to, is that they used a software glitch to access voter data collected by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Where the discrepancy arises is whether the Sanders campaign was downloading and storing data for nefarious purposes, or whether, as they claim, they were doing so to explore the depth of the problem and assess whether their own data was at risk of being collected.
In a statement this Friday, NGP VAN acknowledged that some campaigns could search and access, “but not export or save or act on” voter data of other campaigns. This contradicts a statement by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, where she claimed the Sanders campaign did in fact access, export and download voter file information.
Part of the confusion here, and in the reporting of the story, could arise from how the Sanders campaign searched the data once they realized it was available. By searching with certain criteria in Clinton’s voter database, it would be possible for the Sanders campaign to create a list, like the Manchester example above. But does creating and saving a list within a database constitute “exporting?” That is where the contention lies.
In an interview with MSNBC, Sanders’ former data director, Josh Uretsky, who has since been fired, defended his actions. An experienced user of NGP VAN, he noted that he was fully aware that NGP VAN would be able to track his action, and that he was accessing data “to document and understand the scope of the problem so that we could report it accurately.”
Uretsky continued, “Somebody leaves the front door open and you left a note inside the front door saying you left the door open. Then maybe you went and checked the side door, too, to make sure that door was closed.” He argued that in no way did the Sanders campaign take “custodianship” of the data, nor did they attempt to use it in any meaningful way.
The dispute boils down to how and whether the voter data lists were pulled and saved, and what the true intentions of the Sanders campaign were. The DNC is investigating with the Sanders campaign, and has suspended the campaign’s access to the voter file until the investigation is concluded. Ultimately, the DNC will decide the severity of the Sanders campaign’s actions, but the Sanders campaign has threatened to go to federal court to have their access to the valuable tool reinstated as soon as possible. For a campaign that has garnered significant grassroots support and is relying heavily on a ground game, losing access to NGP VAN for even a day, just weeks from the first primaries, could be significantly damaging.
Expect some discussion of this in tomorrow night’s Democratic debate.
UPDATE: After the Sanders campaign filed a lawsuit in federal court late Friday, the DNC has reinstated their access to their own campaign data and is launching an independent investigation to ensure the campaign no longer has any of the Clinton campaign’s materials. Two more Sanders staffers have been suspended in connection with the incident. Senator Sanders apologized to Clinton during the Democratic debate Saturday night.