In Minnesota, Democratic Grandmothers Gather Data About Their Neighbors
In Minnesota, Democratic volunteers scour their local newspapers each morning for letters to the editor with a political slant. They pay attention to the names of callers on radio shows. They drive through their neighborhoods and jot down the addresses of campaign lawn signs.
Then they feed the information into a state Democratic Party database that includes nearly every voter in Minnesota.
Some of the states' few dozen data volunteers are so devoted that they log into the party database daily from their home computers. Deb Pitzrick, 61, of Eden Prairie, convinced a group of her friends to form the "Grandma Brigade." These women, in their 50s, 60s and 70s, no longer want to knock on doors for the Democrats. Instead, they support the party by gathering public information about other voters.
Much of the data the Grandma Brigade collects is prosaic: records of campaign donations or voters who have recently died. But a few volunteers see free information everywhere. They browse the listings of names on Tea Party websites. They might add a record of what was said around the family Thanksgiving table — Uncle Mitch voted for Bachmann, cousin Alice supports gay marriage.
One data volunteer even joked about holding "rat out your neighbor parties," where friends would be encouraged to add notes about the political views of other people on their block.
Once information about individual people is entered into the state party's database, it doesn't stay in Minnesota. Almost all the information collected by local volunteers like the Grandma Brigade also ends up in the party's central database in Washington.
Few places have data volunteers as dedicated as the ones in Minnesota, which has been held up as a model for other state Democratic parties. Both Democrats and Republicans have centralized databases that, among other things, track opinions you share with local campaign volunteers.
Each piece of information the parties have stored about you might not be too interesting on its own. But taken together, they're incredibly powerful. Political campaigns are using this voter data to predict voters' behavior in increasingly sophisticated ways.
"People say that campaigns are more art than science. They're wrong," said Ken Martin, the chair of Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party.
"We're pretty sure, when we pull you up on a file, which way you're going to vote," he said. "It's a little scary. A little big brother."
Voters themselves have no way to know what data politicians have collected about them, or how campaigns are using or sharing that information. Indeed, the same politicians who are pushing for more transparency about the workings of the commercial data industry — including President Barack Obama — have said nothing about the information that political campaigns collect.
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