Debbie Wasserman Schultz's Primary Challenger Given Access to Democratic Party Voter Data

Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, speaks with journalists in the spin room after the Democratic U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by Univision and The Washington Post at the Miami Dade College in Kendall, Florida, on March 9. Wasserman Schultz faces a newly potent primary challenger in Tim Canova this August. REUTERS/Javier Galeano

Florida Congresswoman and Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz is facing a primary challenge for the first time in her career—and to make things worse, her state's Democratic Party has just given her challenger a major leg up.

On Thursday, the party announced it will allow Tim Canova, who is challenging Wasserman Schultz from the left, access to the party's database of voter information. That database—or the Voter Activation Network (VAN), as it's formally known—is a trove of voter data collected and shared among the Florida and national Democratic parties, and will give Canova a boost in reaching likely voters.

Since 2010, the party's policy had been to allow only incumbent Democrats access to the database. "We stand with our incumbent members of Congress and we're proud of the job they do representing the people of Florida. The Voter File is proprietary software created and owned by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that is maintained and operated by the Florida Democratic Party here in state," party spokesman Max Steele told the New Times BrowardPalm Beach earlier this month.

Canova and others publicly criticized the policy. "I completely understand the need to protect incumbents from Republicans. But from other Democrats in a primary? Why would the party take a side in that contest? Democracy should be about having debate and contested elections. The better candidate should win, so to speak," he told the New Times.

Now, after weeks of pressure from Canova and his allies—and an open letter to Wasserman Schultz from the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, a wing of the state party—the party has reversed course, "to avoid any appearance of favoritism," Scott Arceneaux, the executive director of the Florida Democratic Party, told the Miami Herald.

But the exception applies only to Canova, Arceneaux said. Other challengers will not be given access to the file, which is making some in the party uneasy. "We're glad to see that Canova will be given access to the voter file, but our broader concern about fairness and a level playing field for Democratic candidates still stands," Susan Smith, the president of the Democratic Progressive Caucus of Florida, told Florida Politics. "Inconsistent and non-transparent VAN access policies have been an ongoing issue in the Democratic Party."

Canova agrees. "I hate to be critical at a moment when I am thankful, but I think that is bad policy," he told the Herald. "I don't think state parties should be putting their fingers on the scales to favor an incumbent. There has to be some accountability, and that should be a primary election in which voters decide."

Canova's challenge to Wasserman Schultz comes at a time when the DNC chairwoman faces allegations of favoritism in the Democratic presidential primary. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who is an independent but caucuses with the Democrats, has said Wasserman Schultz has attempted to boost the campaign of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton while intentionally sabotaging his campaign.

Access to the national Democratic Party's voter database has been at the heart of that allegation. In December, the Sanders campaign briefly lost access to the party's hoard of voter data after it was discovered that a staffer had improperly accessed separate data belonging to the Clinton campaign. The Sanders campaign's access was restored after it fired the staff member it said was responsible, but the presidential hopeful nonetheless threatened to sue the DNC over the issue. "The leadership of the Democratic National Committee is now actively attempting to undermine our campaign. This is unacceptable," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said at the time.