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In Minnesota, Democratic Grandmas Gather Data About Their Neighbors

From the campaign sign on your lawn to what you write in a letter to the editor, your political opinions are being recorded in party databases — and then shared in ways you might not expect.

Minnesota voters cast their ballots on Nov. 6, 2012, at St. Anne's Hospice in Winona. The state's Democratic data volunteers -- some of whom update the party's database of voter information daily -- have been held up as a model for other state Democratic parties. (Rory O'Driscoll, Winona Daily News/AP Photo)

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 into 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.

Democrats in Virginia and Minnesota collect a lot of data out of necessity, since voters in those states do not publicly register with a political party. There's no easy way to tell Democratic voters from Republican voters unless the party saves information about them.

A Democratic data firm showed last summer that the party was able to clearly distinguish supporters from opponents despite having no information about voters' party registration.

The amount of information politicians have about individual voters varies state-by-state. Each state party makes its own data rules, and some local candidates are more willing to share their information than others. Swing states — which see a regular influx of national money and volunteers — tend to have more information than safe states.

Both the Democratic and Republican parties have pushed hard over the last decade to train volunteers to use their party's databases. A decade ago, the Republican National Committee was sending staffers with crates of laptops to Republican events across the country, with the goal of training local activists to use the party's "Voter Vault" database, according to interviews with former RNC staffers. Volunteers were encouraged to bring in their address books, look up their friends in the database, and update their contact information, said Serenety Hanley, who worked on the project.

Much of the coverage of President Obama's big data effort focused on the high-level analysts and number crunchers working out of the campaign's offices in Chicago — and the Republicans advocating for their party to adopt similar data-focused strategies.

But Democratic insiders say that their party's data advantage comes from their strong network of on-the-ground volunteers — something that may be harder to replicate than hiring an office of data scientists.

Pitzrick, the founder of Minnesota's Grandma Brigade, came to political activism in 2003 from a background in marketing, and was shocked at the poor quality of the Democratic Party's information. One local volunteer she knew went to interview a voter on her list, only to find his family holding a wake.

So, Pitzrick started flipping to the newspaper obituary page over her morning cup of coffee, and updating the voter database in her local state senate district. These days, she said, she finds it more efficient to open up local entries on Legacy.com.

One of Pitzrick's friends, 76-year-old Fran Merriman, a former high school American history and government teacher, tracks the public records of voters moving in and out of the area — something that's a lot of fun, she quips, for a "nosy old lady."

"Every time we send out mailers and it comes back, we've wasted 44 cents," Merriman said. Updating the database, she said, is "like contributing money" to the party.

"I'm sure some place across the country there are a lot of other seniors citizens who could do this kind of work," she said.

The Federal Trade Commission recently asked nine large data companies to clarify what commercial data companies do with individuals' information — and whether consumers have the right to opt-out. Earlier this year, several members of Congress asked data companies similar questions.

President Barack Obama himself released a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights, focused on online data collection, last February, which suggested that consumers "have a right to exercise control over what personal data companies collect from them and how they use it." The president said he would push for legislation to back up consumers' privacy rights.

But the administration has been silent on what if any rights voters should have regarding the data gathered about them.

Asked about this issue last year, a White House spokesperson would only say that the Privacy Bill of Rights "applies to how businesses handle consumers' personal data online, and will impact all organizations using personal information collected through commercial means," including campaigns.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

Carol Anne (aka Scamp)

Jan. 10, 2013, 8:51 a.m.

Somewhere, J. Edgar Hoover is smiling.

The “grandmas” don’t seem to realize the difference between public and private info. If they are combing through letters to the editor, fine. But reporting back to the “Party” what was said around the dinner table. Yea, that’s not public info, granny.

Why is it, whenever some creepy new invasive, in your face type tactic rears it’s ugly head, it’s always a Democrat behind it?

And the Thanksgiving table deal? Wow.

We really didn’t need another reason not to break bread with leftists, but there it is. <—Be sure to add that to my file.

Stephanie it would seem that as of 2007 the Supreme Court disagrees with you. The court has said repeatedly that once you open your mouth what ever you say is public.  And you have Scalia and Thomas to thank for that.

Hackers needed ASAP to obliterate these party databases so they can get back to doing what is right for the country instead of figuring out how to get re-elected using psychological trickery based marketing techniques to prey on the public psyche.

OMG, my great grandparents fled Poland and Austria where their neighbors were encouraged to spy on specific groups of people to report what they saw or heard to “authorities.” Why would educated Americans ever voluntarily comply? What would make them think this was a reasonable request? Did common sense get outsourced? If nothing else, their eager compliance, following instructions without question is reminiscent of man at his worst. This is so disturbing it should move readers to strengthen school courses in American history, civics, critical thinking and ethics in their own communities.

Sorry but this stuff does bother me no matter how much we know it is happening.  Neighbours spying on neighbours and entering the data in a computer is WRONG!  Data mining has shaped so much of our world, the way our media presents news, public policy, individual chances of success and even how our children’s potential is viewed.  We should all be worried about it.  Somebody should have looked into the question if these databases are sold.  Just a hint about what actually happens in the world of data collection…where there is data there is money to be made.

Mary - Which case are you referencing? I don’t see anything on the 2006-07 docket about this.

I did not mean just in the legal sense, however, I think in a moral sense the conversation that happens in a private home should not be treated as information that can be entered in a political database. It’s absolutely terrifying that the grandmas don’t see it this way.

TJSwift, my understanding is that the Democrats aren’t as secretive about their programs, but the same thing exists on every side.

Weird, though.  I can swear that I’ve heard before about a group that collected every scrap of information they could find on a person, and tried to employ as many civilians as possible to spy on (sorry, “check on”) their neighbors.

Oh, right:

wired.com/politics/security/magazine/16-02/ff_stasi?currentPage=all

Note also that Congress and Obama want to put a stop to companies spying on us, but they rushed through the FISA Amendments extension while they were allegedly bickering about the Fiscal Cliff(TM) like anybody didn’t know how that bit of theater was going to end.

So spying and collecting information on Americans is bad…unless a politician is doing it in hopes of rooting out Enemies or scamming the public.

By the way, Hoover has been mentioned, but think less Stasi and more Ed Bernays and Madison Avenue.

I don’t think it’s happening now, because ProPublica did a very good job collecting variant messages, but consider the next stage, where each of us gets campaign promises tailored to our personal values.  It wouldn’t be hard to just give everyone their own custom lie.  Most politicians already say nothing, so it’s not too hard for them to say everything.

I also believe data collecting schemes like this tend to turn people off and lead them to believe being active in the process will have little or no impact.  While that is not true it is something to be considered.

Walter D. Shutter, Jr.

Jan. 10, 2013, 4:48 p.m.

Re:  The AP photo.  Where are the voting machines? Are those voters actually using paper ballots or are they filling out info sheets on their neighbors?

Seriously, I remember reading that, after the Soviet Union fell and their client states(and their leaders) were left to fend for themselves, the East Germans discovered that one of every three citizens of the DDR were either members of the STAZI (secret police) or reported to someone-who reported to someone-who reported to someone-who was.  For a good while thereafter, it was not a good time for the DDR Grannies.

Danny Johnson

Jan. 10, 2013, 4:57 p.m.

It is creepy that this information is put in a data base no matter whose doing it. Remember Nixon’s enemies lists?  This is that on steroids because today we have computers.  Next thing they’ll (whoever is in power)  be singling out , tea partiers, union, non-union, liberals, conservatives or pick any category for
intimidation or who knows, elimination.  History does seem to repeat .

arnold jesnick

Jan. 10, 2013, 6:38 p.m.

For a state that will soon be over run by Muslim extremists, they will have provided their grandchildrens’ oppressors a wealth of information.
Way to go grannies, only you won’t have to see the carnage you have will have been responsible for.

Byron Winchell

Jan. 10, 2013, 6:57 p.m.

Obama’s party seems to be converging on the plan of the Chavistas in Venezuela.  He’ll have red T-shirted block captains doling out the welfare and ratting out the gun owners and others needing political re-education.

I’ve long ago been pegged about my politics since I’m politically active, contribute to blogs like this, sign petitions, etc. None except those who are not political, don’t vote, and live in relative isolation can prevent themselves from ending up on somebody’s database.

I’m questioning whether laws preventing such an invasion of privacy would be a cure worse than what we have now. I don’t know what the unintended consequences would be.

Currently I get less mail since most of it comes from one side. It all goes into the recycle unread since I don’t ad mailings as “research”. When the avalanche of emails get on my nerves, I hit the “unsubscribe” link and start over. Caller ID gives me the option on whether or not I pick up, call blocking removes the worst offenders, and I choose whether or not to answer the door bell. I accept the reality that anonymity doesn’t exist.

Nothing we can do about the TV ads except record everything and fast-forward though the commercials - until all TV programming goes online. Then we’re stuck. They’ve already figured out our tastes via our AP addresses and tailor-make the commercials “just for us”. (Due to my age group, I get a lot of “thinning hair” ads) Fox viewers already live in the kind of cocoon envisioned for the rest of us.

I hope the database experts will also eventually figure out an awful lot of us don’t like being manipulated with their tailor made material. We prefer doing our own research.

Democrats/liberals are the new Hitlers

I see absolutely nothing wrong with what the Grandma’s are doing. You put a lawn sign out you pretty much want people to know how you feel.  And as for that dinner conversation, if it’s not your immediate family you are in public and probably speaking out to convince others to vote for your candidate.

Count me in.

“Betsy” said: “Count me in.”

Super.

You can start today by using your full, real name in public comment threads, and please include your address and phone number for our records.

Not Giving My Name

Jan. 11, 2013, 3:20 p.m.

Welcome to 1930s Germany.

Alfreda Weiss

Jan. 12, 2013, 4:52 p.m.

I would be more concerned if I didn’t think the red states no longer practice democracy.  The gerrymanders are so extreme the Department of Justice should investigate.  Passing laws at midnight with no notice and a voice count.  The voter suppression laws. The attempt to void the popular vote and select the president using the electoral college.  The Supreme Court with their anti-democratic decisions.  The illegality of Wall Street.  Where I live being a Democrat is enough to be fired from some jobs and lose business if outed.

@Walter D. Shutter, Jr - Of course you were joking, but for those who don’t know, much of MN uses paper ballots that are then scanned by a machine.  Very handy for a recount (e.g. Coleman vs. Franken).

I don’t like this data collection, but everybody is doing it.  The NSA is building the world’s biggest data center in Utah to hold their copies.  Target Corp. can tell a woman who regularly shops there is pregnant before she tells anyone, just on the basis of how her buying habits change.  Stores have “loyalty cards” so they can track your purchases.  Commercial credit bureaus collect all sorts of data.  Does anyone think political parties will be any different, especially if their competitors are doing it?

Nosy hags.

These people would have fit right in in East Germany or North Korea.

Some of those commenting seem to forget that while this article seems to say Democratic Party quite a bit, it does mention that the Republican Party does THE SAME THING.

Itzhak,  Excellent point.  There is not a political organization that does not collect data.  Those who think otherwise are deluding themselves.  Even as we sit here commenting the odds are extremely high that somebody is tracking the postings.  It is the world we now live in.  I do not like it but the facts are what they are.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
Buying Your Vote

Buying Your Vote: Dark Money and Big Data

ProPublica is following the money and exploring campaign issues in the 2012 election you won't read about elsewhere.

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