What Jill Stein Gets Out of Recounts: Your Email Addresses, Worth Millions

Editors' pick: Originally published Nov. 29.

Jill Stein's recount efforts aren't going to win her the presidency. What they will get her is donor data potentially worth millions of dollars.

The former Green Party candidate has raised more than $6.4 million to fund voting recount efforts in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania since November 23. Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in each state by a narrow margin, leading some still-optimistic progressives to hold onto the slim hope the results will be flipped. But Stein, whose distaste for Clinton is obvious, isn't trying to oust Trump. She's gathering email addresses.

Stein is the owner of the name, contact and credit card information of each and every individual who donates to the #Recount2016 cause. And while at first glance it may appear a trivial detail, in the political realm, it's gold. Not only can she use them for future fundraising efforts of her own, but she can also rent out the emails gathered for thousands and even millions of dollars.

"She's collected tens of thousands of high-quality donor emails, and many of those folks will continue to give and give over and over again if her campaign asks," said Kenneth Pennington, former national digital director of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.

An average, fresh email address is generally worth $5 to $10, but donor emails can easily be valued at $20 to $30, said Vincent Harris, a Texas-based digital strategist who worked for Rand Paul, Newt Gingrich and Ted Cruz, among others.

The Stein recount campaign has received donations from nearly 140,000 individuals. Taking that into account, a conservative calculation puts the list Stein is now in possession of at $2.8 million. Harris estimated she could command a fee of $50,000 to $75,000 for a one-time blast.

"It's a really powerful asset for her, and it's one that could be a moneymaker," he said.

Stein uses NationBuilder, a Software as a Service for political causes and campaigns, for her fundraising efforts. Unlike other platforms that use crowdsourcing like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, NationBuilder does not take a cut of any of the donations. It doesn't hold onto donor information, either -- Stein does.

"Jill Stein then owns that data and can use the emails, use the amounts they save and have the information about the amounts they've donated and also, if they've recruited other people," said Emily Schwartz, vice president at NationBuilder.

Once a person has donated, they have the option to share that via Facebook or Twitter. This is part of what has helped Stein's campaign go viral -- and garnered her more information and names.

"That creates a natural engine for her to keep that going," said Schwartz.

Donor lists are a hot commodity in politics. 

"The immediate donations are gravy, but the emails, which they will trade and sell to other like-minded groups, is where the enduring value is," said John Phillips, CEO of nonpartisan political technology firm Aristotle.

Ben Carson collected information from more than 700,000 supporters during his presidential run. The list could earn the retired neurosurgeon $4 million over three years of rentals, according to one estimate. Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker used the rental of 675,000 emails on his list to pay off his more than $1 million in campaign debt. 

According to FEC filings, Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential campaign committee made $2.2 million in list rentals in 2015 and the first three quarters of 2016. Clinton's 2008 presidential campaign committee made $3.1 million on list rentals in the 2010 midterm election cycle two years later.

Bernie Sanders is in possession of what could potentially be a very lucrative list -- more than 2.4 million donors gave to his presidential campaign. But he's not renting it out. He is instead using it for his Our Revolution political action organization, which raises money for various progressive candidates and causes.

Email lists owned and used by a candidate's campaign committee are the property of the candidate's campaign committee, and any money derived from renting the lists belongs to the committee, not the candidate, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Common Cause.

"Both the email lists and money derived from rental of the lists are campaign committee assets and can't be converted to the personal use of the candidate. Doing so would violate well-established federal campaign finance law," he said.

Scam super PACs are more prevalent on the right than on the left, and the same happens with list rentals, though to a lesser degree. Progressive organizations tend to have stricter standards about opting users in to receive emails, and they are generally more wary of falling into traps by sending a lot of unsolicited mail.

Still, there's no doubt Stein is now in possession of a valuable asset.

A Stein spokeswoman said that the average donation size for the recount campaign is about $45, and that three-quarters of the donations received have been under $100. Only a little over 300 contributions of over $1,000 have been made. The maximum amount allowed legally is $2,700 per donor per campaign.

The spokeswoman declined to comment on Stein's intentions for the donor list.

Trump spokesman Jason Miller on a call with press Monday called Stein's recount efforts a "completely frivolous, throwaway fundraising scheme." But that isn't the case.

"I'd pay at least $2 for any old working email address. These are donor addresses so they're worth much, much more. The future value depends on the quality and tenacity of the fundraisers are who control the fate of the list down the line," said Pennington.

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