Complaint alleges group funneled data from RNC to lawmakers

Jul 20, 2021, 9:16 AM | Updated: 5:03 pm

Washington (AP) — A prominent conservative group funneled valuable information about Republican voters between the Republican National Committee and state lawmakers, a move that violated its nonpartisan status and tax law, according to a whistleblower complaint filed Tuesday with the Internal Revenue Service.

The Center for Media and Democracy, a liberal group, filed the complaint against the American Legislative Exchange Council, which hosts conferences and provides model legislation to state legislators. It alleges that the council provides its 2,000 members, most of them Republican lawmakers, with data from a campaign vendor linked to the Republican National Committee, and that data ALEC members enter in the system goes directly to the RNC. ALEC does not provide similar information about Democratic voters.

As a nonpartisan nonprofit, ALEC cannot help candidates win elections. If the IRS finds the organization broke that pledge it could revoke its nonprofit status, which would be a financial blow to an organization that has served as the policy bedrock to the conservative swing in many states, providing blueprints for laws on energy, guns, education and more.

ALEC could face additional legal jeopardy from complaints making similar allegations that the Center for Media and Democracy, in conjunction with the watchdog group Common Cause, says it is also filing with 15 Attorney General offices.

“What the complaints show is that ALEC is a partisan organization at heart, dedicated to promoting Republican policies and supporting elected officials who will implement those policies,” said Arn Pearson, the center’s executive director.

ALEC responded that the database system, known as ALEC CARE, is not used specifically for campaigning but for communicating with constituents.

“ALEC data is not shared with any political party and no political party shares data with ALEC,” spokeswoman Alexis Jarrett said in an email, noting that the login page for the system requires members to agree not to use it for campaign purposes. “ALEC CARE is a constituent management system that helps members better understand and communicate with constituents.”

The complaints are based on internal documents provided by a state lawmaker and ALEC member. The documents show the group provides its members free access to data from Voter Gravity, a Virginia company founded by Ned Ryun, a conservative activist.

The ALEC member cited as the whistleblower in the complaints told The Associated Press they were motivated to leak the internal materials after accessing the Voter Gravity database and seeing that it appears to contain only registered Republicans and voters that have cast ballots in past GOP primaries. The legislator spoke to The Associated Press and provided a tour of the Voter Gravity online portal on condition of anonymity to preserve their relationship with ALEC.

Voter Gravity did not return a call for comment.

ALEC is registered as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, barred under U.S. Internal Revenue code from “directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.”

ALEC membership dues for state legislators are $200 a year, often paid for out of their taxpayer-funded office budgets. One of the perks of membership is access to Voter Gravity data.

In an internal email from January, an ALEC employee touted the data as a way for “legislators to communicate more effectively with their constituents.”

“This software would cost $3,000 if bought by a member, but is a member benefit,” wrote Will Davies, who was then ALEC’s manager for member engagement.

In a detailed sales pitch to potential clients, Voter Gravity describes itself as “an approved mobile app vendor of the Republican National Committee and fully integrated with the RNC’s database.”

“Voter Gravity produces targeted, insightful and immediate information about voters, donors, and activists that mean the most to a campaign,” the company says on its website. “Easily access all of the voter data you need and turn that data into votes.”

The system provides granular level data that is especially useful to conservative campaigns. It captures information about individual GOP-leaning voters, including their names, home addresses, prior voting history, demographic information, interest in hot-button issues like environmentalism and taxation, a score indicating their odds of voting in upcoming elections and an “RNC ID” number. There is no Democratic ID number.

The data normally allows campaigns to develop mailing lists and provides detailed district maps for knocking on doors, including which homes on a specific street contain reliably Republican voters.

The complaint notes that, in 2015, Voter Gravity founder Ryun issued a press release celebrating a new relationship between the data firm and the RNC. Voter Gravity’s database would feed directly into the RNC’s own, which “will allow any candidate … to put data back in real time into the RNC,” the release said.

The complaint alleges that this means new information ALEC members enter into their system immediately can be shared with the RNC. ALEC did not respond to a question about whether members’ data about their constituents goes to the RNC.

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Complaint alleges group funneled data from RNC to lawmakers