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Sanders Campaign: DNC Blocking Voter Data Is Overkill, Breach Of Contract

Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
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This post was updated at 7:30 p.m. ET

Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign has filed a lawsuit against the Democratic National Committee to regain access to the committee's voter file. The DNC blocked the campaign from the resource Friday after a Sanders staffer accessed data collected and organized by Hillary Clinton's campaign.

According to a motion filed Friday evening in U.S. District Court, Sanders's campaign alleges that the national party is suspending its access to the records — something critical to the campaign's ability to identify and contact voters — without contractual cause.

But the Clinton campaign fired back shortly after the Sanders campaign filed the lawsuit, calling it an "egregious breach" which "is totally unacceptable and may have been a violation of the law."

Sanders Campaign Response

The legal action comes after the Sanders campaign blasted the DNC at a press conference earlier Friday, calling the decision to block the data an "inappropriate overreaction," threatening the lawsuit they followed through on.

The committee is "now actively attempting to undermine our campaign," campaign manager Jeff Weaver said.

"Clearly, while the information was made available to our campaign because of the incompetence of the vendor, it should not have been looked at, period," Weaver added.

"Rather incredibly," he continued, "the leadership of the DNC has used this incident to shut down our ability to access our own information — information which is the lifeblood of this campaign."

According to the lawsuit, every day without the data costs the Sanders' campaign approximately $600,000 in donations.

Here is the full lawsuit:

What Data Was Exposed

First an explanation of the data breach: Like its Republican counterpart, the DNC maintains a massive database containing information about voters across the country.

Campaigns of all sizes, from presidential down to the local level, are granted access to this information, and use it to organize both big-picture strategy and day-to-day operations.

All campaigns have access to the same basic set of information that states collect about voters: names, addresses, party identification and voting history.

Campaigns add their own information about those voters — usually, information gathered from door-to-door canvassing and phone calls. They also use the data to conduct big-picture modeling about voters' likely preferences for specific candidates and develop their overall strategy.

That proprietary information is supposed to be secure from other campaigns. But on Wednesday, a software bug in the database allowed campaigns to see each other's private voter info.

Sanders Staffer Viewed Clinton Data

A spokesman for the Bernie Sanders campaign confirmed Friday morning that a staff member accessed another campaign's information.

"After discussion with the DNC it became clear that one of our staffers accessed some modeling data from another campaign," said Sanders communications director Michael Briggs. "That behavior is unacceptable, and that staffer was immediately fired."

The DNC says Sanders's campaign won't be able to access the voter database until the incident is fully explained and there's proof that any improperly accessed data has been disposed of.

For its part, Sanders' campaign is blaming the DNC and the vendor that runs the voter file system, NGP VAN. Here's more from Briggs' statement, which implies this week's data breach wasn't an isolated incident:

"Sadly, the vendor who runs the DNC's voter file program continues to make serious errors. On more than one occasion, the vendor has dropped the firewall between the data of different Democratic campaigns. Our campaign months ago alerted the DNC to the fact that campaign data was being made available to other campaigns. At that time our campaign did not run to the media, relying instead on assurances from the vendor.

"Unfortunately, yesterday, the vendor once again dropped the firewall between the campaigns for some data."

Sanders' supporters are painting this as another instance of the party establishment working against Sanders and favoring his rival Clinton. The DNC was already under scrutiny for a debate schedule that left many wanting more; there's a debate scheduled for Saturday — one of the busiest shopping days of the year.

Clinton Campaign: "Our Data Was Stolen"

Clinton's campaign weighed in on the incident Friday afternoon, with campaign manager Robby Mook telling reporters on a conference call that the breach "totally unacceptable" — and claiming that the breadth of the data accessed was much worse than the Sanders campaign has claimed.

"This was a very egregious breach and our data was stolen," Mook said. "We need to be sure that the Sanders campaign no longer has access to our data."

Mook also blasted the Sanders campaign for "politicizing" the incident and fundraising off of the DNC's decision to revoke access to the database. And he said audit files Clinton's campaign had obtained of the breach showed it wasn't just one staffer who accessed the data, but that their records were accessed 24 times by four different employees and that some of the data had been stored.

"This was not an instance where they happened upon information casually," Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon said. "They made an active effort to search it and retain it."

Locked Out At A Key Time

There's no question that being locked out of the voter files is a major short-term hurdle for the Sanders campaign. Ethan Roeder, who directed data operations for Barack Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns, described the national database as "an online search tool that all of the campaign staff all across the country use to do voter contact."

"All of the organization activity that happens on the ground level is managed through this platform," Roeder said. "When you make a phone call or knock on a door or have a conversation with a voter, the result of that goes straight into the [system]," Roeder said. "Not having access means there's nowhere to store your information. And there's nowhere to pull your information back out of."

The DNC and NGP VAN are both pushing back on the suggestion that this breach was anything but an isolated incident.

"This bug was a brief, isolated issue, and we are not aware of any previous reports of such data being inappropriately available," the company said in a blog post on its website. "We look forward to supporting all our Democratic clients, and in particular apologize to the DNC, Clinton and Sanders campaigns for our bug Wednesday. We will continue to work with and report to the DNC regarding this issue to ensure that this isolated incident does not recur. We have and will do better."

The DNC says it has ordered an audit of the breach, what led to the failure and how widespread it was.

"The DNC places a high priority on maintaining the security of our system and protecting the data on it," said DNC Communications Director Luis Miranda in a statement. "We are working with our campaigns and the vendor to have full clarity on the extent of the breach, ensure that this isolated incident does not happen again, and to enable our campaigns to continue engaging voters on the issues that matter most to them and their families."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Detrow is a political correspondent for NPR. He covers the 2020 presidential campaign and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.
Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politicsand is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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