Perzel Indictment: Lust For Data Isn't It Time To Talk About Political Privacy?

Posted: November 16, 2009

THE IMAGE OF John Perzel that comes to mind when reading the grand jury presentment detailing the crimes - of theft, conspiracy and obstruction - for which he and others were charged Friday is right out of "Twilight": Perzel's thirst for voter data rivals a vampire's insatiable lust for blood.

And after the first taste, he can't survive without it.

"BlueCard," "Candidate Connect," Victory2006" and "The Edge" are just some of the names of software programs he is accused of purchasing with public money for use in his own campaigns. It begins with a 2000 election that he won by fewer than 100 votes; after a couple of years and millions of public dollars he allegedly spent on computers, data and resources through the Republican Caucus' IT program, he wins an election by a 3-to-1 margin.

So hungry is he for voter data, at one point, according to the presentment, that he had the idea of scanning drivers' licenses of NASCAR rally attendees. The idea failed because people balked at having their licenses scanned.

There is a clear line between money spent on the caucuses for consituent management and money spent for a candidate's campaign; Perzel's power in the party apparently allowed him to not only cross the line, but erase it.

Whatever the outcome of this case, we think it's time to look at the bigger picture of the lengths campaigns and parties go to gather and use data on present and potential voters. Both House caucuses operate multi-million-dollar Information Technology departments, presumably organized to make consistuent services more efficient.

But keeping records of callers and their concerns, and occasionally e-mailing them are pretty basic functions. These IT operations are far more complex. The Democratic caucus, for example, provides representatives with computers and programs; all constituent information collected by individual offices goes back to a main server for use by the caucuses. We don't know how much public money is spent on buying databases of current and potential constituents' personal information. But these complex operations make us wonder: is this about keeping constituents happy, or building detailed records on potential voters?

The Internet has eroded firewalls between our private and public selves, and the sale of data about our viewing, buying, driving, voting and other habits is huge business; campaigns buy this data from commercial companies to fine-tune their messages and win elections.

Few of us know just how extensively information about ourselves is being traded, and by whom; even fewer of us are aware that candidates carefully tailor their messages to us based on that data. Yet the notion of political privacy is a concept with few proponents or champions; in part because the First Amendement gives candidates great leeway in their ability to communicate their message. (For example, those hated "robo-calls" are exempt from "Do Not Call" lists.)

Perzel is accused of blatantly illegal acts of misusing taxpayer money. But it's time to start asking how much public money is being used for the legal acts of storing and acquiring data about us, and why we have so little say in the matter. *

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