Will Democrats sell your political opinions to credit card companies?

Records of what voters have told Democratic volunteers may go up for sale -- and not just to political groups

Topics: ProPublica, Democrats, NAACP, Target, Minnesota, Grandma Brigade,

Will Democrats sell your political opinions to credit card companies?

For years, state Democratic parties have been gathering information about individual voters’ political leanings. They have noted down the opinions voters shared with canvassers — which candidates they said they supported or their positions on policy issues.

Now, the record of what people told Democratic volunteers may go up for sale — and not just to political groups. Democrats are looking into whether credit card companies, retailers like Target or other commercial interests may want to buy the information.

State Democratic party leaders formed the National Voter File Co-op in 2011 to sell their voter data to approved groups like the NAACP. The goal was to recoup some of the money local Democratic parties spent collecting and updating their local voter lists, which include voters of all parties.

Much of the data the co-op sells comes from the government and is already part of the public record — information such as voters’ names, addresses and party affiliation.

But local Democratic parties also have information about voters’ views and preferences collected over many campaign cycles. (We wrote about Minnesota’s data-collecting“Grandma Brigade” last month.) Some state Democratic parties have used this raw data to create sophisticated estimates of how likely any voter is to vote for a Democrat, support Barack Obama or have certain opinions, say, on abortion or gun control.

As the co-op moves into its second year of selling data in an already crowded marketplace, it’s looking for new potential clients — and companies who may use the data for commercial purposes, as opposed to political ones, are on the list.

“That’s one of our growth areas,” said Drew Brighton of TargetSmart Communications, which helps administer and market the Co-op’s data. “Over the next six months, we are going to go ahead and make the rounds with some corporate prospects.”

Brighton said retailers, for example, might be interested in figuring out if their customers are primarily Democrats or Republicans. “People want to know who shops in their stores,” he said.

Democrats involved with the co-op do not know what companies might be most interested in buying their voter data.

“What the co-op is doing is saying, ‘Look, there’s a wealth of information here, that could potentially benefit your corporation or your business interests,’” said Ken Martin, a member of the co-op’s board, and the chairman of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.

“Everything is on the table, nothing’s off the table. It’s up to us to figure out what [data] there’s a market for, and whether there’s a comfort level among state parties for selling that information,” he said.

Each state Democratic Party will have the final say over whether to sell their voter information for commercial purposes. If state party leaders aren’t comfortable with selling proprietary data to a certain client, they can opt out.

Individual states have different laws about how their public voting records can be used. Many states mandate that public voter rolls can only be used for “political purposes,” and some states explicitly ban using voting records for “commercial purposes.” The co-op and its clients must abide by these rules.

But state political data laws do not apply to the information about voters that the party itself has gathered.

“Generally, information freely provided to the party by the voter, or data about who participated in a primary [that the party collects] is not subject to any prohibition on it being sold,” said Karl Sandstrom, a former vice-chairman of the Federal Elections Commission and an attorney for the co-op.

This means Democrats are free to sell the opinions voters give to campaign canvassers to credit card companies or marketing firms.

Whether they will choose to do this isn’t certain. Martin, the Minnesota Democratic chairman, said that party leaders will have to weigh the risks of any potential deal.

“Obviously, we know we could make money off our file, but it always comes back to the question of, at what cost?” Martin said.

He said he would evaluate commercial deals on a case-by-case basis.

“I’m not opposed to selling the data if it’s a corporation who shares our values and is going to do some good work with that data.”

Wal-Mart, for instance, would not make the cut, he said.

Whether corporations are interested in buying the co-op’s data remains to be seen. Wal-Mart did not respond to a request for comment about whether it would be interested in buying information about its customers’ political beliefs.

Consumer data companies like Experian already peddle information about individuals’ political beliefs and donation histories — and also link this information to their consumer habits. This November, Experian Simmons released a study breaking down the political leanings of shoppers at J. Crew, Lady Foot Locker, and more than 100 other major retailers.

But the fact that selling voters’ opinions to companies is even an option for Democrats is another example of how rapidly the data industry is evolving — and how little information individuals have about how their data is being shared.

In his “Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights,” released last year, President Barack Obama argued that when companies collect personal data from consumers, they should only share it in ways consumers expect.

If a company decides it wants to share personal information in a new way, Obama suggested, it should notify the consumers who are affected and provide them with choices about how their data is used.

Although Obama pledged to work with Congress to make the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights into law, that hasn’t happened yet.

Joseph Turow, a privacy expert at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, said the possibility that Democrats might repurpose voters’ opinions for commercial marketing is problematic — particularly because they had collected that information through “a relationship of trust” with voters.

Both Democrats and Republicans have long traded information about voters’ opinions with outside political groups. Long-time Republican activists have created a new group, the Data Trust, to manage the Republican National Committee’s data and coordinate data exchanges between the RNC and conservative and issue advocacy groups.

Asked if the Republican Party sells the party’s proprietary data to retailers or credit card companies, RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowsi wrote, “Absolutely not — hasn’t happened in past and won’t in [the] future.”

The Obama campaign’s own closely guarded trove of voter information will be used to mobilize support for the president’s agenda through a new nonprofit advocacy group, Organizing for Action, led by top Obama aides.

It’s not clear what other groups may be given access to Obama’s voter data. Organizing for Action did not respond to a request for comment. Staffers have said that passing on the campaign’s voter information to an Obama-focused nonprofit reflects the wishes of the president’s supporters, although supporters were not asked directly about how the campaign should treat their data.

Sandstrom, the lawyer for the state Democratic parties’ National Voter File Co-op, said he doubted the co-op would actually end up selling voters’ opinions for commercial uses, calling it an “abstract concern.”

Democratic Party chairs were not eager to weigh in on the issue.

Last week, ProPublica contacted 11 Democratic state party chairs — some of them newly elected to their positions — about the National Voter File Co-op. Party chairs in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin declined or did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

New Hampshire Democratic chair Ray Buckley, who leads the Association of State Democratic Chairs, also declined to comment.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>