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In Minnesota, Democratic Grandmas Gather Data About Their Neighbors

Memo Pad Politics

In Minnesota, Democratic Grandmas Gather Data About Their Neighbors


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.


  1. FredAppell January 10, 2013

    I don’t like it. I am a registered Democrat whom always tries to distance the party from NAZI comparisons and this story isn’t helping. As a matter of fact, it strengthens the GOP argument for smaller Government. If the GOP was doing this than Dems would be all over it so I have to call a spade -a-spade. I don’t know how much longer I will be willing to support the Democratic party anyway considering that they are starting to resemble moderate Republicans. The Democratic party is starting to morph into a party of spineless Corporate shills without any regard to the realities of their constituency. Sorry Dems, but i’m moving on.

    1. sigrid28 January 10, 2013

      The Grandma Brigade is not the government collecting information. It is private citizens who identify as Democrats. Furthermore, as the article indicates, the GOP is also assembling databases using the same methods, along with your local food store and other businesses you patronize. Why not use your public library card to check out books about World War II, economics, and current affairs? You must be online if you posted on this comment thread. Try to understand social media better, if information gathering through various media makes you uneasy. There are agencies that will help you protect your privacy online and when you use credit cards, for example: Lifelock is one that comes immediately to mind. Such actons as these will probably do you more good than membership in the Republican party.

  2. sigrid28 January 10, 2013

    Hyper data collection of this kind replicates the utopian–or distopian–vision of a science fiction novel, only we are living it. For some in our society, the prospect of a future in which everything is known about an individual is distopian: it feeds paranoia (gun fanatics).
    Gun ownership should be a secret. Alex Jones and his ilk think it will be adequate to shout false statistics about gun homicides in the United Kingdom in order to win the day in the war to dominate public opinion in the U.S. Cronyism and nepotism operate best in secrecy. In the distopian outcome of a society in which data collection has gone wild, privacy and ignorance become odd bedfellows. The denial of climate change allows Big Oil to swallow up both the economy and the atmosphere, while the public is none the wiser.

    For others, data collection offers a utopian vision: it helps sooth the anxiety that springs from a feeling of helplessness (the Grandma Brigade). An obsession with facts offers a refreshing alternative to political parties that will not be ruled by fact checkers. It addresses the concerns of those who have been oppressed by misinformation, prejudice, and false assumptions, the basis of many forms of tyranny. It is the friend of the First Amendment and the Fourth Estate that protects it. Where there are facts there can be expertise to bring to bear when problems are brought to light, and perhaps there will be time to solve them. Privacy will not be a thing of the past in this utopia, but may depend on imaginative use of the technology from the past. Laptops do not have to eradicate the mystery of a packet of love letters tied with a ribbon and hidden in an old cigar box in the attic.

  3. FredAppell January 10, 2013

    I appreciate the information you have given me but I didn’t misunderstand the article so much as I was only voicing a concern for how right-wingers might misconstrue and twist the facts. Democrats always seem to have their backs against the wall and I for one am sick of it. If the Democratic Party wants to win elections in the future by appealing to voters outside of their base than they need to be smarter about changing certain perceptions of themselves. Even as the article states that Republicans use the same method, don’t think for a moment that they would hesitate to use it against Dems. Remember, a couple of years ago when right-wingers were accusing Obama of creating an army of young citizens to be is own personal militia (brown shirts)? That is the kind of thing I was referring to. It is precisely the fact that they are private citizens that will alarm people who refuse to understand the truth.

    1. sigrid28 January 11, 2013

      You seem to forget that Democrats swept the 2012 election because their base is expansive already, welcoming all races and religious groups, women and, especially, young voters, who do not fear social media because they participate successfully in it daily. I suppose the Democratic party would like your vote, but don’t expect its members to buy into the talking points of fact-challenged Republicans, which you insist on repeating.

      Democrats use social media better than Republicans and have used it masterfully to defeat Republicans, who are growing increasingly out-of-touch and who are only very slowly catching up. The Republican use of social media is a shovel; the Democrats already operate a fleet of bulldozers (which is not a “militia” as you seem to think: just “thinking” something is not a fact). As for militia, Republicans are the party of the NRA.

      Democrats, on the other hand, have social goals that you might want to consider. They want to change the landscape of America by making it more inclusive, by expanding the economy from within the middle class, and by putting more people to work at a living (not a minimum) wage.

  4. Barbara January 11, 2013

    I rec’d an email about the “grey haired brigade”. The description was soooooooooo patriotic
    until you got to the last paragraph and realized what they were really against was President
    Obama. I told them I couldn’t join the brigade because I didn’t own a white hood. They
    responded by calling me a communist.

    1. sigrid28 January 11, 2013

      The article begins, “In Minnesota, Democratic volunteers . . .” If you mean to suggest that there is another “gray haired brigade” working against President Obama, that too is covered by the article: “Both Democrats and Republicans have centralized databases.”

      Elsewhere on the National Memo website there is a short piece by Jason Sattler about increasing membership in the KKK. You can read it for yourself, but my sense of it is that they are more the subject of study by groups such as the Southern Poverty Law Center than they are collectors of data. Wherever they act out, it is trues that their presence is disturbing.

  5. FredAppell January 11, 2013

    I really hope you reply to this comment because I want to clarify some things. What meaning are you taking away from my comments? You seem to think that I don’t support the same things you do. We both see things quite differently though in terns of the electorate. Most of the people that I deal with personally are registered Republicans who can’t stand liberals. I am a registered Democrat who is sick of my party always being on the defensive and always getting much less of what is promised to us. I don’t like compromises and I don’t like sellouts. I expect the politicians I vote for to be tough and unflinching. You are right about how social media is changing the political landscape, but what happened in 2010? How come in just two short years the Democrats lost a very comfortable majority? You don’t have to answer those questions as they were meant rhetorically, I already know the answers. Too many voters don’t understand that the President can’t do everything alone. I’m sure some of them thought that the election of Obama would be enough. They should have been much more informed than that. Now, I have a direct question for you, What happened to the Obama that was full of piss and vinegar in 2008? I liked that Obama but I don’t see him anywhere anymore. All I see is a shell of the man he was and it makes me sad to watch him. You also seem to think that Obama won by a large margin which simply isn’t true. Yes, he did win by a huge margin of the Electoral College but 52% of the popular vote is not exactly what I consider sweeping the election, in fact, it is more troubling than you think. If you are correct and I hope you are than change is coming but it is coming too slow for my liking. I am growing impatient as are many of us. Maybe i’m a lot more cynical than you but I prefer to call it the way I see it. Instead of telling everyone what they want to hear I tell them what they need to hear and I really don’t give a crap whether it is popular or not. What does bug me is when someone such as yourself completely misconstrues my meaning. Am I too cryptic in my comments or did you simply only read part of my comments? How much more direct can I possibly be? Perhaps i’m too left of center for you to understand and if you want to know why I am so hard on Democrats it is because they are moving closer to the middle and away from my own principles. Are we clear now?

  6. Plznnn January 13, 2013

    WOW, talk about Big Brother. Doesn’t this scare you, knowing some group is collecting information about everyone? Just what Hitler did, having everyone gather information on their neighbors, everyone distrustful of everyone else, to keep everybody in line. Is that what you really want?

  7. onedonewong January 13, 2013

    The same tactics that the Gestapo used in Germany in the 30’s and 40’s. Meshes with Obama’s idol and socialist party embarrassment


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