For decades, candidates and political organizations have utilized public information on Montana voters to aid their election efforts. It’s a long-running and legally authorized practice by which data collected by election officials is compiled and sold by the secretary of state’s office for noncommercial use. But after a series of troubling mailers crossed his desk in 2018, Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan has grown concerned that the sale of the state voter file leaves the door open to potential misuse by data brokers seeking to market voter information for non-political purposes.

“Those lists, I believe, could be used for other purposes,” Mangan told Montana Free Press. “Sold to folks like Cambridge Analytica and the like to be used to micro-target specific messages depending on socio-economics, voting, how often they vote, where they live, their age, all that kind of stuff. That to me is not what noncommercial is all about.”

The mailers that first piqued Mangan’s interest arrived in mailboxes statewide during the 2018 election. Different versions originated with different political groups — specifically the Montana Democratic Party, the Republican National Committee, and a super PAC called the New American Jobs Fund — but all included applications for absentee ballots and encouraged voters to vote by mail. Mangan says he fielded numerous complaints from voters who were puzzled how the groups knew they weren’t registered to vote absentee.

Mangan said he was powerless to do much beyond send a strongly worded letter to Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, since the materials didn’t qualify as “electioneering communication” — election-year messaging that explicitly references a candidate, political party, or ballot issue, and requires disclosure to Mangan’s office. He also sent a letter informing the RNC that some of the information in its absentee mailer was incorrect and so could violate state law, prompting the RNC to apologize

Then Mangan began to dig deeper, reaching out to Stapleton’s office and requesting purchase records of the state voter file between September 2014 and August 2018 — records he shared with Montana Free Press last month, along with his concern that some purchasers of the file are likely using or reselling the data in a manner that violates state law. MTFP obtained additional purchase records from Stapleton’s office through February 2020. 

A review of those records reveals that more than a dozen political parties and national political data, analysis, and strategy organizations regularly purchase Montana’s state voter file, which includes voter names, birth dates, addresses, and a record of which primary and general elections they cast ballots in.The file is publicly accessible under state law for a one-time fee of $1,000, or a one-year subscription to updated files for a fee of $5,000. Those purchasers include Data Trust, an exclusive partner of the Republican National Committee tied to a major voter data breach in 2016, and the for-profit firm Catalist LLC, a progressive-cause data repository that counts Planned Parenthood, the League of Conservation Voters, and the AFL-CIO among its clients.

The records also document multiple purchases by several firms that do not advertise political offerings on their websites. These include Dataline, a New Jersey-based consumer marketing firm whose website says it “helps companies improve customer interactions through our data mining technology,” and Flynn LLC, a consulting company that advertises an array of business-focused marketing and advertising services. Neither company responded to messages requesting information on their use of Montana’s state voter file.

Of the eight purchasers MTFP reached out to, only two responded. Catalist relayed a written statement through a public relations firm saying the company “does not engage in any commercial activities.”

“At the very least, should somebody be asking the question, ‘Is this going to be used for a noncommercial purpose or a commercial purpose?’”

—Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan

“We strictly follow the letter and spirit of Montana state laws as it pertains to voter file regulations and guidelines,” the statement continued. “Additionally, Catalist takes every reasonable measure consistent with industry best practices to secure and protect all personally identifiable information.”

Paul Westcott, senior vice president of sales and marketing at the Washington state-based private political data firm L2 Political, spoke at length with MTFP about the company’s use of Montana’s state voter file and how such data is deployed in the campaign landscape. Candidates, political parties, and ballot initiative committees traditionally rely on such data to inform their outreach, Westcott said, from knocking on doors to distributing literature by mail. The voter file contains a variety of data points, and according to Westcott, L2 Political adds hundreds of fields of its own consumer data to the voter file, including phone numbers, email addresses and predictive voter modeling, and can customize that data for clients based on their specific needs.

Montana is one of 37 states with laws expressly forbidding commercial use of state voter files. Violations of those laws vary from misdemeanor offenses to, as in the case of New Mexico, a fourth-degree felony. Westcott said L2 Political is keenly aware of the legal restrictions around use of voter files and endeavors to be a “good actor” by adhering to a strict sales procedure designed to safeguard against non-political use of L2 Political’s data. He says all the company’s data is flagged with a unique identification code, ensuring that any breach can be traced.

“You’re signing a lot of stuff at the time of receipt of the file, which is really good on the states for doing it, basically to make sure that you give us your first born child if you misuse this file,” Westcott said. “The penalties are usually pretty stiff if you are busted doing something like that. That’s why we don’t go anywhere near that with a 10-foot pole.”

One past purchaser listed in the records was the subject of a campaign practices complaint filed by the Montana Democratic Party in 2018. The party alleged that Advanced Micro Targeting (AMT), a Dallas, Texas-based political consulting firm that purchased the state voter file in February 2018, engaged in undisclosed electioneering activity when signature gatherers employed by the firm worked to qualify the Green Party for the 2018 Montana ballot. Both the Montana Green Party and the national Green Party denied having paid AMT for the signature gathering, and AMT argued it was under no obligation to file with Mangan’s office and disclose the source of its funding. Mangan dismissed the complaint against AMT, ruling that the Montana Green Party, as the beneficiary of the signature-gathering efforts, was responsible for disclosing the campaign work as an in-kind contribution. A district court judge ultimately removed the party from the ballot for failing to gather enough signatures.

Last month, AMT was tied to a similar effort to qualify the Green Party for the 2020 ballot when a signature gatherer in Helena, who declined to give his name, told the Great Falls Tribune he’d been employed by the firm. According to the records obtained by MTFP, AMT again purchased the state voter file on Jan. 20, 2020.

The sensitivity around state voter files was underscored nationally in 2017 when President Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity requested troves of voter data from all 50 states, including full birth dates, Social Security numbers, and party affiliations of registered voters (Montana’s voter file does not include Social Security numbers or party affiliation.) Most states refused to comply with the request, and a Texas judge issued a temporary restraining order barring Texas Secretary of State Rolando Pablos from providing the files. Montana Secretary of State Corey Stapleton’s office stated at the time it would not release any private or confidential information.

Still, with the statewide voter file available to anyone willing to pay $1,000, Mangan remains concerned about potential misuse. Mangan articulated that concern to Stapleton in April 2019 in a two-page letter citing both the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the 2018 absentee ballot mailers. The letter, which was copied to Gov. Steve Bullock and Attorney General Tim Fox, stated it was “unwise to expect the data harvesting industry to go against its own interests and profits and protect voters’ privacy and information.”

“At the very least, should somebody be asking the question, ‘Is this going to be used for a noncommercial purpose or a commercial purpose?’” Mangan said. “It’s really simple. That’s the only question they need to ask. I don’t believe that question is being asked.”

Another set of mailers sent to his office this year reaffirmed Mangan’s suspicion that the state voter file is proliferating in ways that are far from transparent. The mailers were distributed by the nonprofit Faith & Freedom Coalition and, while billed as registration confirmation surveys, they included requests for donations. The Faith & Freedom Coalition is not listed in any of the voter file purchase records obtained by Mangan or MTFP.

“People wouldn’t be getting these voter registration confirmation [Faith & Freedom Coalition] surveys for Christian Americans if they didn’t have the voter file,” Mangan said. “And they got it somewhere. And if they didn’t buy it from the state, they bought it from a company or a company has that information and they’re selling it somehow. They’re not giving it away for free, I doubt.”

Dana Corson, Stapleton’s director of elections and voter services, said the secretary of state’s office does review purchaser records for purchasers that don’t look familiar. Usually, Corson said, those end up being individual candidates or university researchers. Corson recalls that the office also fielded numerous calls related to the 2018 mailers that triggered Mangan’s concern. He said the incident shows that the state voter file is far from the only source of information available to entities seeking data on Montana citizens.

“We do get a lot of questions from people about, ‘How did they get my phone number?’” Corson said. “I remember that from 2018. We had several people call and say, ‘You must have sold them my phone number.’ But I looked back in the records and we’d never tracked a phone number for the individual.”

Corson stressed that the secretary of state has a statutory obligation to make voter data accessible, a task that is handled under contract by Montana Interactive LLC. The purchase portal on the secretary of state’s website includes a disclaimer emphasizing the noncommercial-use stipulation in bold font, and Corson encouraged anyone with evidence of violations to contact Stapleton’s office. 

Corson said the office does not, however, monitor use of the voter file or perform audits post-purchase, characterizing voter file purchases as “good-faith transactions.”

“We don’t really have that policing authority like the commissioner of political practices would,” Corson said. “I believe it would fall under the domain of the commissioner’s office.”

Mangan disputes that claim, pointing to both state statute and an administrative rule that place the state voter file under the secretary of state’s purview.

“So, to the limited extent the [commissioner of political practices] has jurisdiction to investigate an allegation of misuse under the election laws, the office would be investigating if the SOS had done their job to protect the information and its misuse,” Mangan said.

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...