Midterms Aren't Over Yet: Data Could Be Election-Law Battleground

A Democratic Group's Complaint to the FEC Shows Political Data Is a Modern Point of Contention

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The voter database has become the latest battleground in politics, so it's no surprise partisan legal armies are moving into this newly contested territory.

In what could be the first complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission involving tech-driven data coordination, the American Democracy Legal Fund alleged last month that the Republican National Committee, along with its top data partners, large right-wing Super PACs and a slew of GOP midterm candidate campaigns have been swapping voter information illegally.

The complaint from the Democratic political ethics watchdog group comes amid allegations of covert polling-data sharing via dark Twitter accounts last week.

The Arizona Republican Party, one of the state GOP organizations named in the complaint, received the complaint in the mail two weeks ago, said Tim Sifert, communications director for the Arizona GOP. "Our contacts at the RNC obviously are taking the lead on that," said Mr. Sifert regarding the complaint. The Arizona GOP has its own attorneys "looking at it" also, he said.

The complaint names the RNC, large PACs supporting Republicans including American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS and Americans for Prosperity, and the GOP's top voter data partners Data Trust and i360, along with the Arizona and West Virginia Republican Parties, Montana State Central Committee and several individual Republican candidate campaigns that ran in the midterms.

The main claim: they shared voter data, including information updated by volunteers through the Data Trust and i360 data platforms, which give campaigns and advocacy groups on the right access to voter data.

On both sides big investments in data-related technologies are intended to ensure smoother and speedier flows of information -- information used to strategically deploy resources like volunteer door-knockers, plan TV ad buys or tailor messages to specific voters. But in doing so, the GOP may have crossed legal boundaries, some say.

"The move in real time exchange of non-public, strategically material data through a common vendor constitutes 'coordination'…and means that the purported 'independent expenditures' of American Crossroads, Crossroads GPS, AFP and other outside organizations are in fact, excessive, illegal, in-kind contributions to the RNC," states the complaint. Campaign-finance laws forbid Super PACs to coordinate with the actual political parties and candidates.

The complaint cites several press reports in addition to Data Trust's own August blog post detailing a partnership with i360 through which the two firms aligned their databases, allowing clients using either system to tap into some of the same information about voters.

"Through this partnership, voter contact information gathered by clients of either The Data Trust or i360 can improve the data shared with all clients," said Data Trust in its blog post. "For example, if a client of either company conducting voter outreach identifies a voter attribute or preference, clients of the other organization will benefit from that information. As a result, conservative groups and campaigns will have more information about voters at their disposal for their own activities than ever before."

"The thing about the GOP that rings bells is that they are saying that the enrichments are being shared across customers," said Josh Cohen, former director of technology for Washington United for Marriage, the 2012 campaign for Marriage Equality in the state and founder and chairman of the Open Supporter Data Interface Project.

The RNC exchanges data with Data Trust, a business trust governed by an unpaid board of directors, and licenses tech tools through the firm. Campaigns and groups that work with Data Trust agree to feed information back into the database, updating voter contact information as well as data on issues that interest particular voters, how much they've donated, whether they have volunteered for a campaign, and other details to give campaigns clearer pictures of the people they aim to attract.

"This is nothing more than a politically motivated attack from Democrat operatives. The complaint is baseless," said Michael Palmer, president of i360. His statement reflected similar sentiments publicly expressed by the RNC.

"The relationship and how this all works has been vetted by a lot of attorneys and it's a frivolous lawsuit," said an RNC spokeswoman. Neither the FEC nor Data Trust would comment for this story.

In the past, Republican sources knowledgeable about the party's data operation have told Ad Age that the RNC, Data Trust, outside groups, state parties and candidate campaigns share enhanced data with one another in an effort to improve the party's data chops overall.

The complaint does not indicate specifically why organizations like the Arizona GOP were named. Mr. Sifert told Ad Age he wasn't sure why the Arizona party was named; however, the party appears to have worked with i360 during this year's midterm election, as indicated by notes regarding training for i360's walk-list apps for canvassing in Maricopa county GOP newsletters and a video with i360 mobile canvassing-app instructions uploaded to YouTube by the Arizona Republican Party.

Leading up to the midterms, both Democrats and Republicans touted their data prowess, which will be put to a greater test in 2016. This year, each side scrambled to one-up the other to build the most sophisticated platforms for facilitating data and technology access by large statewide campaigns on down the ballot.

While there are distinctions in their approaches, both parties are similar in that they each offer access to their voter file data via preferred vendors. The two main disseminators of Democratic data -- NGP VAN and Catalist, which primarily serves advocacy and labor organizations -- are not integrated. So, when an organization on the left such as Planned Parenthood works with Catalist, the updated information it filters back into that database does not make its way through to the DNC voter file managed by NGP VAN.

"The VAN" as it is commonly referred to, offers two separate platforms, one for advocacy groups and one for candidate campaigns.

As in the corporate data world, in politics, databases and technologies used to tap into the data are somewhat opaque. On the right, in particular, firms like Data Trust are tight-lipped on details regarding technology and services. For instance, in the case of the Data Trust-i360 partnership, it is unclear which data points either company shares among clients. It is also unclear whether the firms have database firewalls in place to prevent exchange of data among certain types of clients.

It remains to be seen whether this particular complaint will lead to any significant changes to the Republican party's data structure, yet as political campaigns become increasingly technology and data-focused, it portends a shift that could require new skills among FEC decision-makers, most of whom have legal backgrounds rather than technological expertise.

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