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Friday, December 9, 2016

by Lois Beckett, ProPublica.

In Minnesota, Democratic volunteers scour their local newspapers each morning for letters to the editor with a political slant. They pay attention to the names of callers on radio shows. They drive through their neighborhoods and jot down the addresses of campaign lawn signs.

Then they feed the information into a state Democratic Party database that includes nearly every voter in Minnesota.

Some of the states’ few dozen data volunteers are so devoted that they log in to the party database daily from their home computers. Deb Pitzrick, 61, of Eden Prairie, convinced a group of her friends to form the “Grandma Brigade.” These women, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, no longer want to knock on doors for the Democrats. Instead, they support the party by gathering public information about other voters.

Much of the data the Grandma Brigade collects is prosaic: records of campaign donations or voters who have recently died. But a few volunteers see free information everywhere. They browse the listings of names on Tea Party websites. They might add a record of what was said around the family Thanksgiving table — Uncle Mitch voted for Bachmann, cousin Alice supports gay marriage.

One data volunteer even joked about holding “rat out your neighbor parties,” where friends would be encouraged to add notes about the political views of other people on their block.

Once information about individual people is entered into the state party’s database, it doesn’t stay in Minnesota. Almost all the information collected by local volunteers like the Grandma Brigade also ends up in the party’s central database in Washington.

Few places have data volunteers as dedicated as the ones in Minnesota, which has been held up as a model for other state Democratic parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have centralized databases that, among other things, track opinions you share with local campaign volunteers.

Each piece of information the parties have stored about you might not be too interesting on its own. But taken together, they’re incredibly powerful. Political campaigns are using this voter data to predict voters’ behavior in increasingly sophisticated ways.

“People say that campaigns are more art than science. They’re wrong,” said Ken Martin, the chair of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

“We’re pretty sure, when we pull you up on a file, which way you’re going to vote,” he said. “It’s a little scary. A little Big Brother.”

Voters themselves have no way to know what data politicians have collected about them, or how campaigns are using or sharing that information. Indeed, the same politicians who are pushing for more transparency about the workings of the commercial data industry — including President Barack Obama — have said nothing about the information that political campaigns collect.

Both political parties treat their data operations as closely guarded secrets and will not even reveal exactly what kinds of information about voters are stored in their databases.

At times, politicians are assembling data that has no obvious application. With technology evolving, this information could be valuable in the future.

“A lot of it you just have to collect in good faith that later there will be some place it will apply,” said Sarah Black, the Minnesota DFL voter file manager.

The Grandma Brigade’s Pitzrick said she doesn’t think the publicly available data that she and other volunteers are collecting raises privacy concerns.

“Is it any different than having Best Buy have it for you?” she asked. “It’s out there.”

Political parties can use the data they collect to look at how individual voters’ opinions and loyalties change over time.

In Virginia, a typical profile in the Democratic Party’s database includes notes from the dozens of times campaigns have contacted a given voter since 2001, including which candidates the voter has supported over the years, and whether they were Democrats or Republicans, according to Brenner Tobe, the party’s director of information and technology.

By the 2016 presidential race, Virginia Democrats will have recorded 15 years’ worth of interactions with some voters.

Minnesota’s data goes back even further, thanks to an early investment in a computerized data system in the 1980s.

“The pool of people we don’t know something about gets smaller and smaller,” Black, the voter file manager, said.

During this past election cycle, Democratic volunteers in Minnesota had one million new conversations with voters, which translated into at least one million new pieces of information about individual voters, Black said.

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