As candidates for mayor criss-cross New York City in their final sprint to Primary Day, voter data is king, allowing campaigns to sharpen their strategy and target their spending on still-open votes. That’s why staffers on several mayoral campaigns were perplexed when one campaign was touting its analysis of never before released early-voter data.
The unequal access to information was inadvertently exposed in a couple of tweets from mayoral candidate Andrew Yang’s pollster who shared his analysis of early-voter turnout last Monday. Until then, current and former campaign staffers told Gothamist/WNYC that the New York City Board of Elections had not consistently released early voting turnout information, and that only after being outed on Twitter did the board share the information with other campaigns.
The BOE routinely comes under heightened scrutiny around elections over concerns about the inherently political composition of the Board and whether insiders are given more access. While BOE officials insisted this early-voting turnout data was public, available to anyone who asked, it became clear this week that the Board has not established a clear and consistent policy for sharing early-voter information and communicating to the public about it.
“There needs to be democratic access to this information in a timely manner that is transparent and accessible,” said Tyrone Stevens, a spokesman for Scott Stringer, the city comptroller and candidate for mayor.
The confusion began last Monday when Evan Roth Smith, the pollster for Yang’s campaign, sought to downplay Yang’s sinking poll numbers by sharing his analysis of early voting so far in a series of since-deleted tweets.
“Of the 30,183 Democrats who voted early over the weekend we can match 29,966 in VAN database, and 37% (11,071) did not vote in any of the 2013, 2015, 2017 or 2019 municipal primary elections,” he tweeted last Monday at 1:06 pm, referencing the first weekend of early voting. He added, “It’s a brand new electorate. Can’t poll that. Can’t predict what will happen.”
He tweeted again the next day that the margin of new voters was up to 46%. “Buckle up!” he responded.
Both tweets refer to NGP VAN, formerly known as the Voter Activation Network, the leading software database used by Democratic candidates across the country to access information about an individual’s voter history. One of the primary sources for that information is the state and local Boards of Election.
In New York State, the gatekeeper to this software is the New York State Democratic Committee. Campaigns pay thousands of dollars to use VAN to target voters for ballot signatures, fundraising, and to get out the vote.
The VAN database, which includes public information like voters’ phone numbers and email addresses, is not available without a subscription and not all campaigns can afford it. Smith said he got the data from VAN and only deleted his tweets because he was concerned he might have been violating the software’s terms of service.
But, according to Alexander Wang, the State Democratic Committee’s executive director, the state requested early-voter data from the city on Monday and did not receive the file until after 6 p.m., five hours after the Yang team’s first tweet. Wang also confirmed the state’s VAN application did not have any early-voter data from New York City in previous election cycles; early voting only took effect in November, 2019.
“Candidates in the past have gotten data outside of VAN and they can compare it to the VAN data,” Wang said.
It is not uncommon for campaign lawyers to request information from the BOE on behalf of a candidate, including information about absentee-ballot applications. But attorneys who spoke with Gothamist/WNYC said until now they have not been able to get early-voter turnout information beyond the daily raw numbers the city BOE posts on its website.
It just so happens that the Yang campaign has hired one of the most connected election attorneys in the city, Stanley Schlein, who the New York Times once profiled with a story headlined: “Bronx Lawyer Is Power Behind Several Thrones.” In 2019, he came in as number five on City and State’s Bronx Power 100 which described him as, “the embodiment of the Bronx machine.”
Asked if he was able to get early-voter turnout data for the Yang campaign before it was available to others, Schlein declined to say.
“I don’t know who said I got it. I have an attorney-client relationship with the campaign and I’m not going to speak to you about what I do on the campaign, or not, as the case may be,” he said. “I treat my professional responsibilities in a sacred manner.”
“Often it is important or significant that a campaign knows what to ask for,” said Douglas Kellner, the Democratic co-chair of the State Board of Elections. “Historically, it has always been an issue with insiders who know what to ask for and that’s unfair.”
Kellner said when the state first adopted early voting in 2019 there was a “lively discussion” among elections officials about what data could be released. He said the state BOE ultimately decided that early-voter turnout data could be released but left it up to local election officials to establish their own policies. “The key principle here is data should be released on a reasonable and uniform basis,” he said.
Senior staff at the New York City BOE insisted anyone could access early-voter turnout information if they just asked for it.
“The NYC Board of Elections provides voting data to anyone who requests it, as it is public information. The Board’s focus right now is to ensure that early voting continues to run smoothly and every eligible voter can cast a ballot in the primary election,” said a BOE spokesperson.
All eight of the leading mayoral candidates have a subscription to VAN. But staff for campaigns of Kathryn Garcia, Dianne Morales, Ray McGuire, Scott Stringer, and Eric Adams all said the early-voter data was not available to them until late Monday, after the Yang team’s tweets. (Some insisted the data was still not available while some first learned the data was available to them after Gothamist/WNYC’s inquiries).
The assertion that New York City’s BOE provides this data freely to anyone who requests it came as a surprise to many, including the campaigns who cannot afford a subscription to VAN.
Danielle De Matteo is the campaign manager for Art Chang’s mayoral campaign. The small, grassroots team did not qualify for matching funds. With a tighter budget, the Chang campaign opted not to subscribe to VAN and instead went with two lower-cost software and data options, NationBuilder and Grassroots Analytics. However, without the VAN subscription, the campaign was at a further disadvantage because they did not have access to early-voter turnout data.
“It’s upsetting, especially knowing that we are out on the street talking to voters every day and the one thing that we are hearing every day is that voters don’t trust our city government,” De Matteo said. She argued that the way elections are run was as important as the candidates running in them, and that the city BOE must ensure it’s not giving an advantage to campaigns that have more money.
After learning of the city BOE’s commitment to making early-voting information available, DeMatteo promptly sent an email requesting it and eventually received the data in a spreadsheet on Thursday.
Not everyone was as lucky. When Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service at the Center for Urban Research at The CUNY Graduate Center, requested a copy of the latest voter history file on Wednesday, he had to pick up the file from the city’s BOE office the next day. It came on a CD and did not contain any information about early voting. When he followed up with the city BOE, no one responded.
The way Romalewski’s data request was handled versus how the city BOE responded to the Chang campaign underscores the inconsistency with its data policies. Both requests were submitted this week. Only one was fulfilled.
Gothamist/WNYC has also since submitted a request for the final early-voter turnout data.
There are places in New York that don’t make campaigns, the media, and researchers scramble for access to voter information. In Onondaga County in central New York, which includes the city of Syracuse, the local Board of Elections set up a password-protected website at the start of early voting in 2019 which allows registered users to download data on absentee ballot applications received, absentee ballots received, early-voter turnout, and more.
“I’m really proud of this because it revolutionized how we deal with campaigns and the media,” said Dustin Czarny, the Democratic Commissioner for the Onondaga Board of Elections. He said by making this information readily available, it allows the Board there to focus on their primary jobs: processing voters and running elections.