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Democrats: We Won’t Sell Voter Data for Commercial Use

The leader of a Democratic data-selling group says that Democrats really never intended to sell the party’s deep collection of voter information to for-profit companies.

State Democratic parties will not sell data about voters' opinions to for-profit corporations, according to a statement released Friday by the head of a Democratic data-marketing co-op.

"While such a sale is certainly a hypothetical possibility, it's not one we intend to explore," Ray Buckley, the board chairman of the Democrats' National Voter File Co-op, said in the statement.

ProPublica reported earlier this week that the co-op was looking into whether credit card companies, retailers such as Target, or other commercial interests might be interested in buying their data. The state parties collect voters' names, addresses and party registrations from public records, but also gather their own records about voters' political opinions and other data.

The co-op, formed by state Democratic chairs in 2011, started off by selling its voter data to approved groups like the NAACP. But the group had begun looking for potential clients, including for-profit corporations, according to the co-op's marketing expert, as well as a member of the co-op's governing board.

Although there were no firm plans to sell the data for commercial uses, Drew Brighton of TargetSmart Communications, which helps administer and market the co-op's data, told ProPublica that he was planning to make the rounds with corporate prospects.

Brighton told ProPublica that credit card companies and other firms in other industries might be interested in the Democrats' data for direct marketing purposes.

Ken Martin, a member of the National Voter File Co-op's governing board and party chairman in Minnesota, also told ProPublica that the co-op would be reaching out to potential corporate clients, and that "everything is on the table, nothing's off the table" in terms of potential data sales.

After ProPublica reported these comments this week, a number of Democrats said they opposed the idea of selling voter data commercially.

Doing so "would be a devastating breach of trust," Jim Pugh, a Democratic data analyst who worked for the 2008 Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee, tweeted on Wednesday. Pugh argued that if Democrats sold voter data, voters would stop responding to calls and knocks on their doors, disrupting the whole model of political outreach.

Many party chairs remained silent on the issue, but Oregon Democrats said they would not sell their voter data commercially. "I can't imagine us doing it," party chairwoman Meredith Wood Smith told The Oregonian on Tuesday. "The money is not worth it."

"Essentially the data is gathered for the purpose of assisting the Democratic Party and winning elections, and that's how it should be used," Frank Dixon, who is running unopposed to be the Oregon party's next chairman, told The Oregonian.

Martin, the co-op board member and Minnesota party chair, said in a public radio interview on Wednesday that his state's Democrats were unlikely to sell their data for commercial uses.

"There are many state parties out there, unlike Minnesota, that actually need the revenue [from selling voter data] to help maintain their files," he said. "We're not in that position; it's not as much of a necessity for us to sell our data."

But Martin said that Minnesota Democrats would consider different data marketing options — and reiterated that nothing was off the table. "For us it really has to be more than just about money," he said. "It has to be selling it to corporations that are using it for either voter education, issue advocacy, or some purpose that our party supports, and it has to be sold to a company that is like-minded in values."

During the radio interview about ProPublica's story, Martin said that no state Democratic parties were currently selling their data for commercial purposes. But he said corporations were eager to acquire information about voters' political leanings.

"There's certainly other private firms and consulting firms that already do collect political data and then sell that out to corporations, and the question is, as you said, whether other state parties, whether Democrats or Republicans, actually participate in that," he said.

In his statement on the co-op's plans, co-op Chairman Buckley maintained that Democrats had never considered selling their data commercially.

"The State Parties' goal is to sell proprietary IDs to progressive allies, non-profits and research institutions. No one has been thinking of selling data to for-profit corporations (except for some in the media)," the statement read.

Buckley, who is also the chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party and the head of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, did not respond Friday to requests for comment.

Brighton did not respond to requests for comment, but in a Wednesday interview on the website TechPresident, acknowledged hearing complaints about selling data to corporations.

"I did get a few emails from people that know me, asking: 'Are you really doing this? It seems pretty risky,'" Brighton said. "And I said: 'No, we're not doing this yet, but we basically said in our effort to represent the co-op, we're looking at all the potential areas where they want to market their data.'"

"If someone's knocking on your door and saying: 'I'm volunteering for this purpose,' they might see it as a bait and switch," he told TechPresident. "Maybe it's a bad idea. Maybe we won't do it. Based on the feedback from [ProPublica's] article, we probably won't."

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