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DNC restores Sanders’ access to voter data as candidates prepare to debate

Democratic National Committee acted hours after Sanders’ campaign filed suit; will conflict boost audience for debate?

The campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders won back access to crucial voter data hours after it filed suit Friday against the Democratic National Committee for blocking the files from the candidate’s team.

Now a question is whether the public fight between the Sanders campaign and the DNC might bring more viewers to Saturday night’s Democratic presidential debate on what was otherwise expected to be a poor ratings night.

The DNC and its chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, had already been criticized for allegedly favoring the campaign of longtime favorite and current frontrunner Hillary Clinton by arranging for only four presidential debates and scheduling two of them for Saturday nights — including the Saturday before Thanksgiving and this Saturday, on the last weekend before Christmas, and picking times for both that were opposite high-profile NFL games.

Critics have said the limited debate schedule reduces exposure for Clinton’s rivals.

Whether the dispute over voter files is a big enough scandal to overcome the ratings-killing timing of the ABC-hosted debate Saturday night in Manchester, N.H., the skirmish is likely to bring an uncomfortable undertone to the event.

The conflict erupted early Friday when the DNC blocked the Sanders team’s access to voter data on the accusation that the campaign had improperly accessed private files collected by the Clinton campaign

It soon became clear that the data breach was the result of a code error by the DNC’s software vendor NGP VAN — which has ties to Clinton dating back to her unsuccessful 2008 presidential campaign.

The glitch temporarily dissolved the firewall between the databases of the Clinton and Sanders campaigns. The DNC said Sanders’ staff then “inappropriately” accessed information that belonged to Clinton and, as a penalty, it suspended Sanders’ access to all voter data until the Sanders campaign could demonstrate it had retained none of Clinton’s files.

Sanders’ campaign manager Jeff Weaver accused the committee of favoring Clinton and “acting to undermine” the Vermont senator, and on late afternoon the campaign filed suit in U.S. District Court demanding that the DNC restore access to its voter files.

According to Weaver, the Sanders campaign had been working quietly with the DNC since the breach was discovered Wednesday. He told MSNBC on Friday evening that the Sanders team had done everything it had been asked to demonstrate that none of Clinton’s data was misused or retained. Still, the DNC went public with its accusations and suspension of data privileges soon after documents associated with the breach were leaked — “most likely,” according to MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, “by the Clinton campaign.”

“I have been trying to negotiate with them for days over what information they wanted,” Weaver said late Friday on MSNBC’s “All In.” “After we provided this information to them I said, ‘If this is not satisfactory, what else do you need?’”

Weaver said he got no response until the Sanders campaign filed suit.

The lawsuit would give the Sanders team access to internal DNC communications, Weaver said, which would “demonstrate what I think most people think is going on, which is that there are some people in there who are clearly trying to help the Clinton campaign.”

In making his accusation, Weaver referenced the abbreviated and awkwardly timed debate schedule along with NGP VAN’s failure to maintain the firewall. Ultimately, it took a lawsuit to get DNC leadership to again talk to the Sanders team and agree to work to fix the software problem, Weaver said.

The Clinton campaign said in a statement, "We hope that the court will resolve this matter tonight and the Sanders campaign has access to their voter files right away.” At the same time, however, the campaign called the incident “an egregious breach of data and ethics.”

Just after midnight Saturday, less than 20 hours before the start of the New Hampshire debate, Wasserman Schultz tweeted, “The Sanders campaign has provided us with the info needed to restore their voter file access.”

In a statement issued minutes later, the DNC said it would “continue to investigate to ensure that the data that was inappropriately accessed has been deleted and is no longer in possession of the Sanders campaign.”

With the apparent resolution of the data dispute in advance of Saturday night’s debate, it will likely be up to ABC’s moderators as to whether this incident becomes an actual topic of discussion for the candidates on the stage.

Sanders, no doubt, would hope to get back on message, decrying economic disparity, warning about climate change, and touting this week’s big endorsements from the Communications Workers of America — a labor union with more than 700,000 members — and the liberal grassroots organization Democracy for America. Clinton could look to continue to contrast her experience as Secretary of State with the bellicose rhetoric used earlier in the week by Republican presidential candidates during their debate in Las Vegas.

And for the third Democrat in the race, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who has apparently remained above the fray — or at least below the radar — during the voter data dust-up, his struggles to remain relevant to the presidential race continue. For his part, O’Malley has been the most vocal critic of the limited debate schedule.

But whether Friday’s row provokes more voter interest — and so better ratings — on the Saturday night before Christmas is harder to predict. As is whether that kind of interest is the sort Democratic campaigns want.

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