Today news broke that the Democratic Party has cut off Bernie Sanders’ access to its massive voter database as a result of a data breach through the vendor NGP VAN. This, is of course, huge news that has many potential ramifications to both the DNC and Bernie Sanders. The DNC and Sanders campaign have already been at odds for months now as it’s very evident that DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz prefers Hillary Clinton to become the Democratic nominee for President. Unlike many other actions that could be taken against the Sanders campaign, this is one of the most damaging. Their campaign is built entirely on grassroots efforts as noted by recent news that he’s passed 2 million individual donors. As a Republican backing Marco Rubio, this is welcome news to me to see this kind of in-fighting between Democrats. As someone who doesn’t have a party in this fight though, here’s my take on the situation.
History between the DNC and NGP VAN
The DNC and NGP VAN have a lot history that must be addressed when looking at the recent breach. NGP VAN was formed at the end of 2010 when the company NGP Software merged with the Voter Action Network to create a powerhouse in the Democratic political campaign technology space. The Voter Action Network was the architect of the DNC’s VoteBuilder database and gave the newly formed company a natural advantage in future contractual negotiations with the DNC. NGP VAN likes to brag about its large clients including organizations like the DLCC, but when you have exclusive access to the vaunted VoteBuilder system that was given credit to Obama’s win in 2008, you’re naturally going to have those clients. On top of that, state parties and the DNC have provided discounts to campaigns to use NGP VAN. It’s incredibly difficult for outside competition when considering these circumstances.
These contracts have inevitably given NGP VAN a monopoly on Democratic campaign technology. In the past, companies like Salsa Labs were competitors to NGP VAN, but that is not the case anymore. As evident by the copy on the front page of their website, Salsa Labs has now shifted their focus to non-profits. Any companies who posed a possible threat to NGP VAN were bought out like Obama alum’s NationalField. Other traditionally liberal companies have turned to conservatives to ensure their business stayed alive. This decision led NGP VAN to lead a public relations campaign claiming that, “Bi-partisan vendors are bad for you.” That’s funny because it doesn’t seem like those companies had much of a choice with the monopoly created by NGP VAN.
DNC and NGP VAN’s Fault, Not the Sanders Campaign
First and foremost, it needs to be said that this is entirely the fault of the Democratic National Committee and NGP VAN, not the Sanders campaign. Based on details that have been released so far, the Sanders campaign realized that there had been an issue with the NGP VAN system before even the vendor or the DNC. They noticed that some of the data they could access was specific to the Clinton campaign and not data meant to be shared per the DNC contract. The breach was only 30 minutes long as the Sanders campaign was also concerned that their data could be accessed by the Clinton campaign. The Sanders campaign reported the breach to both NGP VAN and the DNC very quickly. Unfortunately for those who reported it, they apparently also downloaded and exported some data, so the DNC halted the Sanders campaign’s access to their voter file. Those who reported the breach were also fired shortly after the story broke.
To me, this situation raises the question of why staff members of the Sanders campaign were fired when this situation was entirely the fault of NGP VAN. They didn’t intentionally hack any systems, so in reality, they didn’t do anything wrong. It is NGP VAN’s job to ensure the safety of campaign data and that safeguards are put into place to avoid these sort of situations. This breach wasn’t a surprise of anyone involved either as in an interview with CNN, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz confirmed that in October there had been another incident where campaigns’ data was left un-secure.
Actions the DNC Should Take
Restore Bernie Sanders Access to Their Voter File
The first action the DNC should take was stated perfectly by this Washington Post article: The DNC needs to restore Bernie Sanders’ access to voter data — fast. The Sanders campaign is running the narrative that the DNC is doing all it can to help the Clinton campaign win the primary with as little bloodshed as possible. By denying the Sanders campaign access to one of the most valuable assets in their campaign, the DNC is really playing into that narrative.
End NGP VAN Contract to Ensure Data Security
Now that’s out of the way, in the long term, the DNC needs to dramatically reform the way they handle their relationship with vendors. For a long time, the DNC has mocked the RNC for their huge disadvantage in the area of campaign technology, but they could learn a few lessons from them. The RNC has central control of GOP Data Center and has created agreements with companies like Voter Gravity, i360, and NationBuilder to allow for API integrations to their database. These companies isolate each customer’s database from the start, so the problems experienced by NGP VAN cannot happen.
End NGP VAN Contract to Encourage Competition
Aside from data security, another element not discussed is the decreased innovation on the part of NGP VAN recently. While competition has driven NationBuilder, i360, Voter Gravity, and others to continue to improve their technologies, NGP VAN really has no incentive to do so. Their contract with the democratic establishment ensures that it’s incredibly difficult for a company like NationBuilder to compete with them. If the DNC chooses to continue the route it’s going, it can continue to expect in-fighting during primaries and critiques from vendors that power players inside the party of the ability to pick winners and losers. Removing themselves from the equation and allowing vendors to compete (and take the burden of responsibility for their faults), will help the DNC in the long run.
As a Republican, this situation is quite ironic. For years, the DNC has bragged about their advantages, but now it’s clear there are distinct advantages to using the new Data Center integrations with whatever company I’d like to use. In reality, this fight mirrors the fight between many liberals and conservatives. Centralized control to ensure efficiency and “fairness” vs. competition to bring the best ideas to the forefront.