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So, at this point everyone should have heard about the data issue that happened involving the the Democrats running for President.  However, there seems to be a lot of misinformation floating around out there about what happened, along with people just having no concept of what the VAN is/is not and what is can/cannot do.

I am not committed to any candidate for 2016, but as of late have been leaning towards supporting Hillary Clinton.  However, my thoughts below do not come from a place of being biased toward one candidate or the other.  It comes from a place of being a campaign hack and using the VAN for almost 10 years.  If you want to assume that I have it out for Sen. Sanders and his campaign, just don’t.  I am not a part of some vast DNC conspiracy.  Cool?

Key Terms

VAN: This is the shorthand way to refer to VoteBuilder, a platform developed by NGP-VAN, that is a way to analyze and access Voter File informaiton

Voter File: This is a list of registered voters, that will often include name, address, phone number, and email address.  This is public information that people – campaigns, the Party, etc – can request from their Secretary of State or Elections Office.

Data: For a campaign, this is not just the basics – name and contact information.  It is a comprehensive collection of data points on a voter that help you know whether they support your candidate, etc.  This can include previous support, ID questions, or other information about a person (are they interested in a specific issue or something like that).  This information is the result of a lot of hard work by individuals – often volunteers – and reflects and helps inform the overall campaign strategy.  The VAN allows campaigns to have private data that only members of their committee can see.

Committee:  Each campaign has a committee in the VAN, with campaign staffers and volunteers having a unique log-in to the system.  To put it simply, this is a room of campaign information that only approved members have the ability to access.

Database: A Presidential campaign likely has many things that can be referred to as a database.  They will likely have a platform to handle blast emails, one that tracks donor information, one for volunteers, and one for voters.  There is not one database to rule them all. 🙂

Some of my thoughts. . .

  1.  This was not a “hack”.  Based on what has been reported, it does not appear that the Sanders campaign staffers somehow access the Hillary for America (HFA) committee in the VAN.  Depending on the circumstances, that could be a hack, but since it didn’t happen here, doesn’t apply.

It seems, instead, that there was a set of data which was private to the HFA committee that showed up as accessible to users in the Sanders campaign committee.  To put it another way – imagine if you logged in to your email, and in addition to your email, all of a sudden you noticed you were getting someone else’s.  You didn’t log directly into their account, but somehow you are seeing their information.  This is similar to what seemed to have happened here.

2.  It does not seem like the Sanders staffers were just documenting a known issue.  Based on the search logs that have been released, they completed many searched across many different states and saved information to folders on the system and shared with colleagues.  In my opinion, the pattern of the types of searches they ran and how they were saved showed that they were trying to mine the data to use for their campaign.

Others viewed this the same way:

A question was raised in @IASTartingLine’s timeline that I think also is important to consider:

If the reports that private campaign data was exposed to all of the campaigns, it is interesting that only one of the three campaigns accessed and saved data from another campaign.  If you are in the VAN, it would be obvious if you had a code or something that wasn’t yours.  At some point, the Sanders staffer made the decision to create a search using a data point that wasn’t theirs.  That to me, is problematic.  I believe the staffer that did this has lost his job, but still claims he was just trying to document the issue.  As was pointed out above, the search patterns seem to indicate otherwise.

To the staffer(s) that were involved – just admit you did something wrong. Learn from your mistake, and don’t do it again. Cool?

3.  You can think the DNC overreacted and should restore access AND that the Sanders campaign also did something wrong. These are not mutually exclusive.  However, I personally think that a brief disruption in access would be appropriate once it was discovered there was an issue.  Perhaps the DNC should reconsider their contract language to protect if things like this happen, while also having an established mechanism to get access restored. #justsayin.

In MN, per the user agreements I’ve had to sign to access the VAN, campaigns can lose access if people are misusing the system without warning. I think this makes sense and not the 10-day window that the DNC has in their contract right now. Imagine how much data they could have mined in 10 days.  Eeek.

I also think that the lawsuit was an over the top response.  As I mentioned above, the campaign did something wrong, and facing some sort of consequence is appropriate.  Playing the victim? Yeah, not really working with me.

4.  This is about more than just access to data.  Remember how pissed people were when the Patriots were spying on other campaigns to learn their signals on the field?  This is kind of like that.  It also says a lot about a campaign team and the operation they are running.  And as I explained above, the information accessed wasn’t just basic details, it was internal campaign information.

The VAN works well because we have a shared commitment to the tool, and respect that other campaign data is not ours. This action violated that trust in my opinion.

Campaign staff and volunteers spend so much time and campaign resources gathering information about voters, and for someone from another campaign to come in and attempt to use it is inappropriate.

5.  To pretend that you wouldn’t be just as pissed if your campaign’s information was taken is foolish.  Stop playing.  Keep it real.  You’d be pissed and calling for people to be fired and whatnot.  To say otherwise just is shady.  At the end of the day, we should all be mad that a campaign did something shady and call on all campaigns to do better.  The stakes are too high to have a huge internal squabble.


I’m glad that the Sanders campaign is now able to access the VAN to reach out to voters and  I hope they drop the lawsuit.  The DNC should also reassess it’s contract language to protect against instances where it appears someone is accessing data inappropriately to protect the integrity of the data and also establish a way to restore access ASAP.



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