Perez Brawls With State Democratic Parties Over Voter Data

DNC chair accuses state-level counterparts of wanting to go 'alone on technology and data'

Tom Perez
Tom Perez / Getty Images
• December 18, 2018 9:40 am


Tom Perez, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, is locked in a brawl with his state-level counterparts over how the Democratic Party should monetize its voter data.

Since taking the helm of the DNC, Perez has championed a comprehensive overhaul of the party's data infrastructure. Perez's proposal, cribbed off initiatives the Republican National Committee implemented after its 2012 loss, centers around creating a for-profit trust in which the DNC would deposit voter data collected by state parties. For a fee, the data would be licensed to candidates and groups affiliated with the Democratic Party.

Perez's proposal would tap a new source of revenue for the DNC ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

However, the state parties, which own exclusive rights to their voter files don't seem ready to relinquish ownership or the financial benefit to Perez.

On Friday, Ken Martin, the president of the Association of State Democratic Committees, signaled his opposition after weeks of working to kill the plan behind the scenes.

In an email to state party leaders, Martin urged for a repudiation of Perez's proposal. In its place, Martin suggested that state parties expand their existing partnership with TargetSmart, a data management firm.

Under Martin's plan, TargetSmart would compile the voter data and license it to outside entities. State parties would be given a direct commission, which they could use to bolster local candidates and causes.

Martin's proposal cuts out the DNC from receiving a monetary benefit from voter files compiled by the state parties.

Perez responded by accusing Martin and the ASDC of wanting to go "alone on technology and data" in an email to state party leaders on Saturday. A copy of the email was obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. 

"For some inexplicable reason, this proposal would tear down just about everything about our current data structure, reversing so much of the progress we made over the past decade," Perez wrote. "Rather than protect State Party interests … [the] ASDC proposal would shift millions in new costs and other burdens to State Parties."

Perez threatened that if state parties didn't support his plan they would have to "find a replacement for VoteBuilder," the DNC's voter engagement database. He further warned that going along with Martin's proposal will hurt candidates and future "investments" by the DNC.

"Most importantly … [the] plan would undoubtedly result in a splintering of the Democratic data ecosystem, as candidates would work off of different and competing data sets for the first time since the national voter file was built. In short, we are perplexed and dumbfounded by this proposal," Perez wrote. "At its core, the proposal … amounts to nothing more than a rejection of the DNC's support for and future investments in our shared Democratic data ecosystem, and it puts our entire national voter file in the hands of a single for-profit vendor."

Neither the ASDC or the DNC returned comment for this story.

The in-fighting underscores just how far the DNC's data operation has deteriorated since 2008 when it was considered instrumental to President Barack Obama's victory.

After the 2016 presidential election Hillary Clinton even blamed her loss partially on the party's "mediocre" data.

"You know, I set up my campaign and we have our own data operation," Clinton told an audience at Recode's Code conference in March 2017. "I get the nomination. So I'm now the nominee of the Democratic Party. I inherit nothing from the Democratic Party. I mean it was bankrupt. It was on the verge of insolvency. Its data was mediocre to poor, nonexistent, wrong. I had to inject money into it."

Perez seems to be hoping that the initiatives he's backing can put the DNC back on solid footing.

Outside of the lucrative licensing revenues, the notion of a for-profit data trust has more practical purposes.

Since it is not subject to campaign finance limitations or the ban on coordination with outside groups—labor unions, ideological advocacy groups, and Super PACs—the trust enables a broader data sharing network. This ensures voter information is being consistently refined and updated.

Furthermore, Perez's proposal has the potential to bridge lingering divides between progressive and establishment Democrats.

This election cycle, one of the biggest complaints progressives raised was that Democratic Party leaders refused to share voter data. These instances, mostly concerning cases where progressive challengers were primarying incumbents, would be nonexistent if every candidate was eligible to buy access through the trust.

It is unclear if Perez will be able to bend the state parties to his will.

A source familiar with both the ASDC and the DNC told the Free Beacon the issue "boiled down to control and who will benefit the most."

"The states don't want to give up one of their strongest assets to the national party," the source said. "State parties are consistently reaching out and refining the voter information. In some states, the national party only gets involved every two-to-four years, yet the state parties are constantly engaging."

"Many feel like their data is their baby. They built it, they nurtured it," the source added. "They aren't going to give it up without a fight."