Pro-Bernie Nevada Dems and the DNC Are in a Voter Data Feud

Is this a Democratic establishment power grab?

People wait to vote at Reed High School in Sparks, Nevada on November 3, 2020. Scott Sonner/AP

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Nevada State Democratic Party officials are fuming over a draft proposal from the Democratic National Committee that would allow the DNC to hand over a crucial party asset—data files on Nevada voters—to candidates or local Democratic organizations without the state party’s consent. In what looks like another conflict between progressives and the Democratic establishment, officials of the state party, which is led by an insurgent group of Bernie Sanders supporters who wrested control of the party earlier this year, believe the new rule targets them. They consider it an effort to assist a shadow Democratic operation affiliated with Harry Reid, the former Senate majority leader who remains a powerbroker within Nevada. 

The angst has been triggered by a new data-sharing agreement between the DNC and its state parties that governs the use of voter file data, the bedrock upon which campaign organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts are built. Nevada state party officials have raised concerns about a provision that outlines dispute resolution in the event a candidate and a state party disagree over access to the voter file. This doesn’t happen often. But occasionally, a Democratic candidate or committee will request access from a state party for voter data files that are developed jointly by the state party and the DNC, and the state party will say no. 

According to the draft circulated to state parties and obtained by Mother Jones, in the case of a dispute that cannot be resolved through mediation, the DNC chair may authorize the national party to provide the campaign base voter files for that one election cycle. Base data is a stripped-down version of the voter files maintained by state parties; this data is kept by the national party. The draft also says that candidates may request that the DNC chair provide this voter file access to a county or other local party committee. 

The data-sharing relationship between the state parties and the DNC—which the national party negotiates with the Association of State Democratic Committees—is complicated. In general, a state party gathers basic voter data that is publicly available and usually obtained from the secretary of state (names, addresses, and whatnot) and provides that information to the DNC. The national party then uses data firms and vendors to augment the data (by adding email addresses, phone numbers, and other information) and clean up the data and ensure it’s current. The DNC also organizes all this data on a platform that campaigns can use to track voters, and it pays for this platform and provides it to the state chapters. State parties, which can add their own proprietary information (say, the political preference of a voter, if known) to the files, control access to these databases. The state party in every state, with the exception of California, is part of this process, under which the national party covers much of the cost of maintaining voter data files for the states. (Years ago, California opted to run its own data operation.) 

The new data rules replace the existing data resolution process, which requires deliberations by a four- or five-person oversight committee, not just the DNC chair. Resolutions must be agreed upon by a majority of three members and are non-binding, which can lead to a situation without an ultimate resolution.

The DNC reviews the data-sharing arrangement every four years or so, and the change to the dispute resolution process had been partly prompted by a conflict that arose during the 2020 reelection campaign of former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who lacked access to the state voter file for much of the campaign because of a poor working relationship with the state party, according to a person familiar with data agreement. “The Jones campaign was working off an Excel spreadsheet for a while,” this source says. 

“DNC wanted a failsafe mechanism for when there is a problem,” a Democratic strategist familiar with the data agreement notes. “If there is a dispute, they can still have campaigns get data. They did want to be respectful of the state party and not force them to share their data.”
 
But Nevada state party officials, who have been locked in a bitter fight over voter data with a rival Democratic political operation in the state close to Reid, feel targeted by the provision. They see the new dispute resolution process as a loophole that permits the DNC to distribute valuable voter data to the Reid-connected shadow party—and disempower the state party in the process. “The DNC chair can strip the state party and hand party assets to whoever,” a source close to the Nevada State Democratic Party says of the provision. “When that happens, there’s no due process—they can just arbitrarily take everything from us and say, ‘Hey, you’re not the state party anymore.'”
 
“The DNC would never, and indeed could not, under this agreement arbitrarily provide state party assets to a campaign,” says Lucas Acosta, DNC senior spokesperson. “This mechanism was developed to ensure campaigns have the tools they need to win. This agreement will give campaigns aggregated public data and bypass the state party only if a thorough mediation process does not resolve the dispute. We deeply respect our state party partners and their proprietary data and will always try to find the best solution to give our campaigns the best chance to win.”
 
This conflict comes after months of political warfare between the state party and the Reid-aligned forces. Nevada state party officials say they believe that the DNC, with this data-sharing agreement, is siding with Reid. (The Nevada State Democratic Party declined a request for comment.)
 
For decades, the Nevada State Democratic Party had been tightly coupled with Reid’s political operation, known locally as the “Reid machine.” Tensions between these party regulars and an ascendant progressive wing first flared during Sen. Bernie Sander’s (I-Vt.) 2016 presidential run. By the time Sanders won Nevada’s 2020 caucuses with a decisive victory, his supporters had a majority on the state Democratic central committee. This past March, a slate of Sanders supporters swept all five party leadership positions at the Democrats’ state convention. The slate had the support of the local Democratic Socialists of America. Judith Whitmer, a Sanders backer who previously led both the Clark County Democrats and the Clark County Left Caucus, became party chair. The entire staff of the Nevada State Democratic Party quit in protest—but not before they moved $450,000 from the state party’s bank account into the reelection campaign of Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.).
 
Rumors soon began circulating that Reid loyalists were seeking to run a rival political operation out of the Democratic Party of Washoe County, Nevada’s second most-populous county. In June, the Washoe County executive board voted to host the state’s 2022 coordinated campaign to reelect the state’s top Democrats, such as Masto and Gov. Steve Sisolak. The new effort, called Nevada Democratic Victory, is now the primary channel for campaign organizing and funding in the state—functions typically reserved for the state party. The official Nevada state party wrote a memo in September claiming it had filed a challenge with the Federal Election Commission on the basis that “that Nevada Democratic Victory falsely claimed, to the Federal Government, affiliation with the Nevada State Democratic Party.” (Nevada Democratic Victory did not respond to a request for comment.)
 
State party officials say they are concerned that the new data-sharing agreement will allow establishment Democrats to further undercut the progressive-run state party. Nevada Democratic Victory does not have access to the state party’s voter file, though Whitmer told Politico last month that “they haven’t come to the table” to discuss purchasing it and have had the contracts necessary to do so “on their desks for a while now.” If the county party files a dispute under the process proposed in the DNC draft agreement, the DNC chair could eventually decide to give the county party access to those base voter files.
 
The drama is unfolding as national Democrats grow worried about their party’s prospects in Nevada in the 2022 midterm elections. Both Cortez Masto and Sisolak are considered vulnerable after President Joe Biden won Nevada by only 2 points in 2020. The state’s redistricting process turned one-time safe Democratic seats into toss-up contests. The congressional arm of the Democratic party has classified the reelection campaign of Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) as one of the cycle’s most competitive.
 
The DNC is holding up the distribution of $6 million in funding to state parties until the agreement is signed, Politico reported. (The DNC would not comment on this.) Sources close to the Nevada Democratic Party say the party has not received big checks from the national headquarters necessary for hiring more organizers heading into the midterms. 

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