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Sanders Campaign: DNC Blocking Voter Data Is Overkill, Breach Of Contract

Dec 18, 2015
Originally published on December 18, 2015 7:54 pm

This post was updated at 7:30 p.m. ET

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has filed a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee to regain access to the committee's voter file. The DNC blocked the campaign from the resource Friday after a Sanders staffer accessed data collected and organized by Hillary Clinton's campaign.

According to a motion filed Friday evening in U.S. District Court, Sanders's campaign alleges that the national party is suspending its access to the records — something critical to the campaign's ability to identify and contact voters — without contractual cause.

But the Clinton campaign fired back shortly after the Sanders campaign filed the lawsuit, calling it an "egregious breach" which "is totally unacceptable and may have been a violation of the law."

Sanders Campaign Response

The legal action comes after the Sanders campaign blasted the DNC at a press conference earlier Friday, calling the decision to block the data an "inappropriate overreaction," threatening the lawsuit they followed through on.

The committee is "now actively attempting to undermine our campaign," campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.

"Clearly, while the information was made available to our campaign because of the incompetence of the vendor, it should not have been looked at, period," Weaver added.

"Rather incredibly," he continued, "the leadership of the DNC has used this incident to shut down our ability to access our own information — information which is the lifeblood of this campaign."

According to the lawsuit, every day without the data costs the Sanders' campaign approximately $600,000 in donations.

Here is the full lawsuit:

What Data Was Exposed

First an explanation of the data breach: Like its Republican counterpart, the DNC maintains a massive database containing information about voters across the country.

Campaigns of all sizes, from presidential down to the local level, are granted access to this information, and use it to organize both big-picture strategy and day-to-day operations.

All campaigns have access to the same basic set of information that states collect about voters: names, addresses, party identification and voting history.

Campaigns add their own information about those voters — usually, information gathered from door-to-door canvassing and phone calls. They also use the data to conduct big-picture modeling about voters' likely preferences for specific candidates and develop their overall strategy.

That proprietary information is supposed to be secure from other campaigns. But on Wednesday, a software bug in the database allowed campaigns to see each other's private voter info.

Sanders Staffer Viewed Clinton Data

A spokesman for the Bernie Sanders campaign confirmed Friday morning that a staff member accessed another campaign's information.

"After discussion with the DNC it became clear that one of our staffers accessed some modeling data from another campaign," said Sanders communications director Michael Briggs. "That behavior is unacceptable, and that staffer was immediately fired."

The DNC says Sanders's campaign won't be able to access the voter database until the incident is fully explained and there's proof that any improperly accessed data has been disposed of.

For its part, Sanders' campaign is blaming the DNC and the vendor that runs the voter file system, NGP VAN. Here's more from Briggs' statement, which implies this week's data breach wasn't an isolated incident:

"Sadly, the vendor who runs the DNC's voter file program continues to make serious errors. On more than one occasion, the vendor has dropped the firewall between the data of different Democratic campaigns. Our campaign months ago alerted the DNC to the fact that campaign data was being made available to other campaigns. At that time our campaign did not run to the media, relying instead on assurances from the vendor.

"Unfortunately, yesterday, the vendor once again dropped the firewall between the campaigns for some data."

Sanders' supporters are painting this as another instance of the party establishment working against Sanders and favoring his rival Clinton. The DNC was already under scrutiny for a debate schedule that left many wanting more; there's a debate scheduled for Saturday — one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Clinton Campaign: "Our Data Was Stolen"

Clinton's campaign weighed in on the incident Friday afternoon, with campaign manager Robby Mook telling reporters on a conference call that the breach "totally unacceptable" — and claiming that the breadth of the data accessed was much worse than the Sanders campaign has claimed.

"This was a very egregious breach and our data was stolen," Mook said. "We need to be sure that the Sanders campaign no longer has access to our data."

Mook also blasted the Sanders campaign for "politicizing" the incident and fundraising off of the DNC's decision to revoke access to the database. And he said audit files Clinton's campaign had obtained of the breach showed it wasn't just one staffer who accessed the data, but that their records were accessed 24 times by four different employees and that some of the data had been stored.

"This was not an instance where they happened upon information casually," Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said. "They made an active effort to search it and retain it."

Locked Out At A Key Time

There's no question that being locked out of the voter files is a major short-term hurdle for the Sanders campaign. Ethan Roeder, who directed data operations for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, described the national database as "an online search tool that all of the campaign staff all across the country use to do voter contact."

"All of the organization activity that happens on the ground level is managed through this platform," Roeder said. "When you make a phone call or knock on a door or have a conversation with a voter, the result of that goes straight into the [system]," Roeder said. "Not having access means there's nowhere to store your information. And there's nowhere to pull your information back out of."

The DNC and NGP VAN are both pushing back on the suggestion that this breach was anything but an isolated incident.

"This bug was a brief, isolated issue, and we are not aware of any previous reports of such data being inappropriately available," the company said in a blog post on its website. "We look forward to supporting all our Democratic clients, and in particular apologize to the DNC, Clinton and Sanders campaigns for our bug Wednesday. We will continue to work with and report to the DNC regarding this issue to ensure that this isolated incident does not recur. We have and will do better."

The DNC says it has ordered an audit of the breach, what led to the failure and how widespread it was.

"The DNC places a high priority on maintaining the security of our system and protecting the data on it," said DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda in a statement. "We are working with our campaigns and the vendor to have full clarity on the extent of the breach, ensure that this isolated incident does not happen again, and to enable our campaigns to continue engaging voters on the issues that matter most to them and their families."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.


Today, a major dispute erupted in the Democratic presidential primary, and it is all about data. The Democratic National Committee has locked Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders's campaign out of a national database of information about voters. NPR's Scott Detrow covers tech and politics and is here to explain it.

Scott, what's going on?

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Well, there's a lot of conflicting information here, but everybody agrees on this - at least one Bernie Sanders staffer accessed information that he shouldn't have that was compiled and owned by the Clinton campaign. That happened earlier this week for about 40 minutes. How many people did this and how much of Clinton's information they looked at or even downloaded - that's still unclear. It's important to know that every Democratic campaign accesses the same central hub of information about voters and they all add their own information and analysis to that data. But you're only supposed to be able to access your own campaign's information. Now, the Sanders campaign says that they had seen these problems before, they were just trying to alert the DNC to the problem. But the committee has a much different view of this. They say it's a major problem. It was a systematic accessing of the Clinton information and because of that, they've now barred the Sanders campaign from accessing this information.

SHAPIRO: So it sounds like the DNC and the Sanders campaign are each blaming each other. Let's listen here to Sanders's campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, who said the DNC is crippling his campaign.


JEFF WEAVER: We are announcing today that if the DNC continues to hold our data hostage and continues to try to attack the heart and soul of our grassroots campaign, we will be in federal court this afternoon seeking immediate relief.

SHAPIRO: Sounds like harsh words. How important is this actually? Are the stakes really that high?

DETROW: Yeah, I think that's accurate. Weaver said this database is the lifeblood of any campaign, and he's right. You know, campaigns base a huge chunk of their strategy on this voter information, and it also takes a big part of what they do day in and day out. You know, every time a campaign is calling up a voter or knocking on a voter's door and talking to them, they're taking that information and they're putting it right back into this database. These days, when volunteers are going door-to-door and they're using apps to get that information and that information - it all comes from this. So they really can't do much of anything right now without access to these files.

SHAPIRO: OK, Scott, on the one hand you have the Sanders campaign saying this was an honest mistake. Then you have the chair of the DNC saying this was a systematic data download. Who's right?

DETROW: That's a good question, and that's something everyone's trying to sort out right now. But you're right - these are two very different stories. The Sanders campaign says that they saw evidence of a problem they had seen before and what they were doing was trying to just gather up evidence to bring to the party and say, hey, look, this is a problem. The DNC clearly views this differently because they responded in a very aggressive move by blocking the Sanders campaign out of a really crucial part of day to day campaigning.

SHAPIRO: This seems to be tapping into some deep-seated anger and resentment. What is going on under the surface here?

DETROW: There's a whole lot going on. And for the Sanders campaign, this fits into a broader trend that has angered them throughout the entire campaign. They've argued time in and time out that the Democratic National Committee, that the party structure as a whole is really doing everything it can to try and help Hillary Clinton win the nomination. One piece of evidence they always point to is the fact that tomorrow night's debate is the second in a row to happen on a Saturday night, where most viewers usually have better things to do than sit down and watch several hours of political debate. But they say the debates are being scheduled few and far between at hours where people won't watch them. And they say that this is just another example of the party apparatus siding with Clinton. And I can tell you that based on Twitter reaction and online reaction to NPR's initial story, a lot of Bernie Sanders supporters out there feel the same way.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Scott Detrow.

Thanks Scott.

DETROW: Thank you Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.