Last week, the Florida Democratic Party — and Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz — took some serious heat after it banned upstart congressional candidate Tim Canova from using the party's voter data files, which help candidates research and contact supporters. But the Florida Democratic Party reversed its decision yesterday, party spokesperson Max Steele has confirmed to New Times.
Improbably, this was the second voter-data scandal to ensnare Wasserman Schultz this election cycle. In December, Wasserman Schultz, acting as chair of the Democratic National Committee, temporarily banned Bernie Sanders from accessing the DNC's voter data files after his campaign staffer was caught hacking into Hillary Clinton's campaign data. (The information allows candidates to research and contact potential supporters in their area.) But the move backfired, and Wasserman Schultz has since been accused of intentionally trying to sink Sanders' chances at the presidency. Sanders sued, the move was overturned, and critics across the country have called for her ouster. She's had a bad few months.
In something of a twist, Canova, who once advised Sanders on Wall Street reform, then said he had also been denied access to that very same data. This was due to a Florida Democratic Party rule, instituted in 2010, which bans candidates running against incumbents from using the information. In an interview, Canova called the rule "undemocratic" and said the party was acting to protect Wasserman Schultz.
The party did not offer data access "to candidates challenging incumbent members of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation," Steele told New Times earlier this month. "This policy has been applied uniformly across the board since 2010. We stand with our incumbent members of Congress, and we’re proud of the job they do representing the people of Florida. The Voter File is proprietary software created and owned by the Democratic National Committee that is maintained and operated by the Florida Democratic Party here in state."
This is common practice across the country: Party members in many states pay to keep the data files updated and, theoretically, are allowed to use them as they please. Those who cannot access the data are free to hire third-party database companies, like TargetSmart. (It's also important to note that Wasserman Schultz does not run the Florida Democratic Party — that honor goes to Chairwoman Allison Tant Richard.)
But critics like Canova say rules like that exist to protect entrenched, big-name politicians like Wasserman Schultz, whose 23rd District encompasses parts of Hollywood, Florida, and Miami Beach.
"I said, 'I completely understand the need to protect incumbents from Republicans,'" Canova says he told the Florida Democratic Party. "But from other Democrats in a primary? Why would the party take a side in that contest?" He then accused the party of protecting Wasserman Schultz from challengers.
After Canova put up a fight, the Florida Democratic Party reconsidered how Canova's case looked to the outside world, Steele says. The party made the choice today to give Canova, and only Canova, access to the file.
"Given the unique circumstances of having an incumbent member of Congress who is also the DNC chair who is being challenged by a Democrat (a situation that as you can imagine has never arisen), the FDP has decided to grant Mr. Canova access to the Voter File," Steele said via email. The file will cost $3,500 to access.
Steele reiterated that this will be a one-time policy change: "Given the dual nature of an incumbent who is also a national party chair, we’ve decided to grant Mr. Canova access to avoid any appearance of favoritism," he said. Other candidates who run against incumbents will be out of luck.
Reached by phone, Canova says he's glad he'll have access to the file but thinks the party's policies ought to change for every candidate, not just for him.
"We were getting ready to file a lawsuit, but we got the call this morning," he said. "I'm grateful Allison Tant changed course." He added: "I don't think they should have this rule for anybody."
A portion of the Florida Democratic Party seems to agree. Before the party announced its decision, Susan Smith, chair of Florida's Democratic Progressive Caucuses, sent an open letter to Wasserman Schultz on Wednesday, begging her to open the voter files to all candidates.
"I am writing on behalf of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, an official charter of the Florida Democratic Party, with concerns expressed to us by your primary opponent, Tim Canova, that he is not being treated fairly by our state party," Smith wrote. "Our caucus has not endorsed any candidate in your race, but we do have an interest in ensuring that the public perception is that all of the Party's candidates have been treated fairly. We're sure you will agree."
The caucus, which has roughly 200 members and is one of a number of subgroups that make up the Florida Democratic Party, advocates for left-leaning causes like voting rights, government transparency, and campaign finance reform. The group has also endorsed Bernie Sanders.
"It's not a confrontational letter at all," Smith tells New Times. "All we're asking for is a level playing field. We've been calling for this for a long time. It's nothing new for us."
She added: "They did decide to give Tim access, which is good news for him. But we had heard this is being done in other states too. We just don’t think it’s fair — we want to create a level playing field."
Here's the letter in full:
Dear Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz:
I am writing on behalf of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, an official charter of the Florida Democratic Party, with concerns expressed to us by your primary opponent, Tim Canova, that he is not being treated fairly by our state party. Our caucus has not endorsed any candidate in your race, but we do have an interest in ensuring that the public perception is that all of the Party's candidates have been treated fairly. We're sure you will agree.
Last week, Mr. Canova informed us that he was denied access to the shared Democratic voter file controlled and maintained by the DNC and the Florida Democratic Party. It is my understanding that Mr. Canova is more than willing to pay the standard fee paid by other candidates for the use of that voter file, the VAN.
As you know, the VAN is a necessary tool for any Democrat running one of today's data-driven campaigns. The Party has been encouraging all candidates to use the VAN for some years now to avoid fragmentation of campaign data across a number of platforms. The VAN not only aggregates information that may be publicly available, but hard to find, it also provides a way to manage the data generated by campaigns as they make contact with voters. Because each campaign feeds data into the VAN, each candidate who uses it helps to make it stronger for our party and for future candidates.
Simply put, the Florida Democratic Party's decision to restrict access to the VAN hurts not only Mr. Canova, but it robs the Party itself of the benefit of any data his campaign would input to enrich the statewide voter file and is likely to lead to a breakdown of discipline on VAN use by our Democratic candidates and increased fragmentation of data.
We view this issue as larger than just the voter file, however. Due to issues arising out of the Presidential Preference Primary, the Democratic Party has already been subjected to accusations of being undemocratic because of the so-called super delegates. I'm sure you will agree, additional negative attention, which might reinforce that theme, should be avoided if possible.
When the official organs of the Democratic Party give the appearance of preventing free and open primary contests, it sends a dangerously discouraging message to grassroots Democrats, on whom the Party depends for volunteer support, and to qualified Democrats who might consider running for office. It benefits the party to expand the Democratic talent pool in Florida, by not excluding or disadvantaging qualified candidates. We should not discourage candidates from running against incumbents any more than we should discourage those incumbents from explaining to voters why they deserve another term in office.
I am writing to you today because I know that you care about fostering an open and transparent Democratic Party that allows talented leaders to percolate up through the ranks. Assuming you do prevail over Mr. Canova in this primary, I am sure that you would not want that victory tainted by this misguided attempt by the Florida Democratic Party to put their thumb on the scale of the democratic process on your behalf. I believe that if you ask the Florida Democratic Party to allow Mr. Canova access to the voter file, they will do so.
Thank you for your time, attention and consideration of this request.
Susan Smith, Chair
Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida