The short story on this: Governor Gretchen Whitmer, D-MI, contracted with the firm Every Action VAN, a company that specializes in collecting data for Democratic fundraising and vote mobilization, to track the data collected in Michigan in the coronavirus contact-tracing effort.
Yes. That means all the worst things it sounds like. The Michigan taxpayers would have been paying a company that manages voter- and donor-database building for Democrats, to help a state agency collect data on them. (See below; the contract has now reportedly been cancelled.)
Although some Michigan news sites were saying on Monday that Every Action VAN was merely one of the companies under consideration, a news release from the state website indicated there was an actual contract (all emphasis added):
MDHHS is contracting with Great Lakes Community Engagement, a firm that specializes in outreach campaigns to engage citizens, and Every Action VAN, a voter/individual contact platform used by non-profits, to provide software to help organize remote phone banking and track information and contacts.
The CEO of Every Action, Stu Trevelyan – a veteran of the Clinton team in the 1990s – is also the CEO of the parent company NGP VAN, which was at the center of the Hillary Clinton/Bernie Sanders dust-up in the 2016 campaign. The Sanders campaign was denied access to NGP VAN – yet the firm’s services are, as Politico put it in December 2015, the “digital plumbing of the Democratic Party.”
At the heart of the Bernie Sanders data mess is a firm that functions as the digital plumbing of the Democratic Party: NGP VAN. Democrats are nearly wholly dependent on it, which is why the breach — the company says it’s the first in its nearly 20-year history — and the Sanders campaign’s subsequent cutoff from the system is so rattling the party.
Here’s some money-quote from Politico:
Nearly every Democratic campaign across the U.S. uses NGP VAN in some fashion, though critics say that’s due in some part to the fact that the DNC and state Democratic parties force candidates do so as part of the package of receiving party support. The arrangement leaves it up to the Democratic Party to decide which campaigns get access to the software, giving it an enormous gatekeeping power of which the Sanders’ campaign felt the force during its temporary suspension of access to the data file.
The State of Michigan press release didn’t see fit to mention those things about Every Action VAN’s parent.
The non-profits for which the Every Action VAN subsidiary provides contact platform services may include a number of left-wing advocacy groups and PACs. But the bread and butter of the umbrella NGP VAN company is the Democratic Party, the state Democratic parties, and numerous Democratic campaign organizations.
So for NGP VAN, as well as the Democratic hierarchy, big data on Americans is a blood sport. It is laughable to suggest that since the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services would own the data, the Every Action VAN software and services provider would magically be unable to exploit it.
It’s more likely that NGP VAN would simply make more money off of the data being tracked on the people of Michigan.
There are other firms providing similar services to Democrats and other left-wing organizations. ActBlue is probably the most prominent of them, and one we’ve reported on before. Kamala Harris and Florida Senator Bill Nelson both urged Americans to make “hurricane relief” donations to an ActBlue entity, ActBlue Charities, after major hurricanes in 2017 and 2018, money that would have gone to political advocacy PACs rather than to hurricane victims.
And in 2018, NGP VAN introduced an integration feature that would allow ActBlue users to access NGP VAN information. Data from NGP VAN being shared to ActBlue pretty much covers the universe of big-data interest for the entire left-wing of the political sphere. This, of course, would not be out of the goodness of anyone’s heart at NGP VAN. Specific purposes for data come and go; the enduring point of collecting data, for private firms, is to sell access to it.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, although of course privacy concerns are a growing source of anxiety for the average citizen in a frenzied data-selling environment. But there’s a moral hazard big enough to steam an aircraft carrier through, in a state governor selecting her party’s go-to big-data company to get paid by the public to track big data on the public.
The whole thing looks exactly like exploiting the virus crisis to drive money and informational advantage to the Democratic Party.
That’s because that’s what it is. The hurricane fundraising recommendations of Harris and Nelson are a reminder that elected politicians have done the same thing before.
Michigan seemed to recognize pretty quickly that it didn’t want to pay for the privilege of being NGP VAN’s latest digital plumbing project. A hue and cry arose on Monday, as indicated by the indignation from Wes Nakagiri (link above), a county commissioner.
Once the national news organizations picked the story up, the Whitmer administration seemed to quickly think better of it. Washington Free Beacon’s story has a kind of happy ending: the contract with NGP VAN for contact-tracing data services has been cancelled. Whitmer’s willingness to use taxpayer money in this way has been exposed as well.
Oh, and Stu Trevelyan is also working with the Biden campaign on the 2020 election, per the initial WFB article. Michigan being one of the most important battleground states, and the impact of the coronavirus being inevitably a key campaign issue from multiple perspectives, it’s even less credible to claim that NGP VAN couldn’t-a, wouldn’t-a used its Whitmer-contracted data access for Democratic advantage in the 2020 vote.