Election 2016

After Blocking Sanders Campaign from Voter Data, Democratic Party Relents and Restores Access

As the DNC and Sanders accuse each other of data theft, one wonders if anyone was spying on Bernie's base?

Photo Credit: Crush Rush See All/Shutterstock.com

Update: The DNC has relented and will restore the Sanders' campaign access to the Democratic party’s 50-state voter file.

 

Anyone who followed Hillary Clinton’s 2008 campaign knew it was only a question of when and how—not if—she or her allies would go after anyone blocking her path to the 2016 nomination. But fighting over DNC voter files?  

On Friday, the strange story about the Bernie Sanders campaign, the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee jumped into a new orbit as Sanders’ campaign manager said at a press conference that the campaign might sue the DNC because it had shut off access to a nationwide voter file database. “They are not going to sabotage our campaign,” Jeff Weaver declared.

Several hours later, the Sanders campaign sued the DNC in federal court in Washington, claiming it violated a contract clause that it give the Sanders campaign 10 days notice before blocking access to the Democratic voter database.

The fight’s spark occurred Wednesday, when a handful of Sanders staffers viewed Clinton campaign voter files because the DNC's voter database vendor had taken down a firewall. The Sanders campaign reported a similar security breach in October and was told it would be fixed, Weaver said, adding that Sanders' data had been given to other candidates at that time.

These are the party's files of every registered Democrat and each campaign's notes about them; from what they say in phone bank conversations, to candidate preferences and get-out-the-vote needs.

However, the DNC quickly accused the Sanders campaign of improperly accessing Clinton's files and fingerpointing ensued, with the DNC announcing Thursday it was punishing Sanders. Weaver said the DNC's decision to shut off his campaign's access to the files and information compiled by Sanders' supporters revealed an institutional bias for Clinton.

“It is our information and the information of all of these volunteers and the people who support our campaign, not the DNC’s. In other words, by their action, the leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign,” he charged. “This is unacceptable. Individual leaders of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign, one of the strongest grassroots campaigns in modern history.”

“I’m sure there are people within the Democratic establishment who are not happy about the overwhelming success Sen. Sanders is having all across this country,” Weaver said. “To do that, we need our data which has been stolen by the DNC.”

“The Sanders campaign doesn’t have anything other than bluster at the moment that they can put out there,” DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz told CNN on Friday, adding that Sanders staffers knew they were doing something wrong, and if Clinton’s team did the same thing, she would be expected to punish them. “It’s like if you found the front door of a house unlocked and someone decided to go into the house and take things that didn’t belong to them.”

The New York Times’ account of the brouhaha said that Sanders’ now-fired national data director, Josh Uretsky, insisted they were not fishing through Clinton's voter data, but trying to create a search record the DNC and its vendor could use to rectify the latest firewall breach.

Brian Fallon, Clinton campaign spokesman, countered, "We were informed that our proprietary data was breached by Sanders campaign staff in 25 searches by four different accounts. We are asking that the Sanders campaign and the DNC work expeditiously to ensure that our data is not in the Sanders campaign's account and that the Sanders campaign only have access to their own data."   

In the meantime, Uretsky said shutting off access to voter file data hurts the Sanders' campaign. “It makes it very difficult for the campaign to conduct its daily activities,” he said. “The campaign routinely relies on these lists and data.” 

A Good Week Until…

The DNC’s actions come after a week in which Sanders was gaining momentum as he crossed the 2 million donation line to his campaign, beating Barack Obama’s 2008 record by several months. He also gained two important political endorsements, from the Communication Workers of America, a labor union, and Democracy for America, a progressive group. Meanwhile, Clinton raised more than $8 million Thursday at a ritzy dinner at New York City’s Plaza Hotel and the latest polls from New Hampshire show her closing in on Sanders’ lead, which she now trails by 2 percent.

Before the data spat, the Democratic race was getting tenser. The next Democratic debate is slated for Saturday night, though the other two candidates have criticized it as being a pro-Hillary favor from the DNC because it’s scheduled on a day and time unlikely to get a big audience. Against this backdrop, the DNC data spat could be seen as predictable pressure cooker tensions from every side.

“The Democratic National Committee just did the unthinkable: Only a few short weeks before Iowa, they’ve completely shut down the Sanders campaign’s access to the DNC’s 50 state voter file—all because of a security error made by a third party vendor,” wrote Charles Chamberlain, Democracy for America’s executive director, in a Friday e-mail blast. “There is simply no excuse for this."

The DFA’s chairman explained that blocking access to voter files is like throwing a stick between the spokes of a fast-moving bicycle wheel at a key point in the race. “The voter file contains contact information about potential Democratic primary voters across the country,” he said. “Campaigns rely on it to conduct their get-out-the-vote efforts. By taking away access to the voter file, the DNC has crippled the Sanders campaign and its ability to mobilize grassroots activists to identify supporters.”

Chamberlain said none of this is the fault of Sanders’ staff. “They discovered an already existing software glitch that put their own data at risk, along with the data of other major campaigns. When they realized the extent of the problem, they contacted the vendor, NGP-VAN, to let them know what they had found and demand that it be fixed. But instead of penalizing NGP-VAN for recklessly handling the data of all the campaigns, the DNC is inexplicably punishing the Sanders campaign by taking away their access to crucial campaign data when they need it the most.”

The DNC’s statement, issued Thursday by Wasserman Schultz, said the Sanders staff saw a way to access Clinton campaign data and started going through it.

“Over the course of approximately 45 minutes, staffers of the Bernie Sanders campaign inappropriately accessed voter targeting data belonging to the Hillary Clinton campaign… and in doing so violated the agreement that all the presidential campaigns have signed with the DNC. As the agreement provides, we directed NGP-VAN to suspend the Sanders campaign’s access to the system until the DNC is provided with a full accounting of whether or not this information was used and the way in which it was disposed.”

Wasserman Schultz said the Sanders campaign might get access to the voter data again soon. “I have personally reached out to Senator Sanders to make sure that he is aware of the situation,” her DNC statement said. “When we receive this report from the Sanders campaign, we will make a determination on re-enabling the campaign’s access to the system.”

All of this back-and-forth will raise the stakes in Saturday evening’s final Democratic presidential debate, the last of 2015. While statements from the Sanders campaign reveal they were deeply relying on the party’s voter files, one can only wonder if this will backfire on the DNC and Hillary supporters if a solution is not forthcoming.

Late Friday afternoon, Weaver sent an e-mail blast to Sanders supporters urging them to sign a petition to pressure the DNC to restore their access to voter data. "We'll be in touch soon as this situation evolves," he wrote. "You are the power behind this campaign. We are doing something unprecedented, and that has a lot of people scared."

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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