The Republican Party asked Florida tax collectors for millions of email addresses. Why?

The request was ultimately denied but it demonstrated the massive data effort behind President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign.
The Republican Party recently asked Florida tax collectors to provide "all email addresses" that had been collected by their offices.
The Republican Party recently asked Florida tax collectors to provide "all email addresses" that had been collected by their offices. [ Shutterstock ]
Published Feb. 17, 2020|Updated Feb. 17, 2020

A curious request arrived in the inboxes of Florida tax collectors last week from an employee of the Republican National Committee.

He asked for “all email addresses that have been collected and are in the possession of the Tax Collector’s Office.” He also wanted any names, property addresses and phone numbers connected to those emails in their records.

If the tax collectors had complied, the Republican Party would soon have a valuable trove of personal information for millions of Floridians as it gears up for the 2020 election: A detailed database of many taxpayers’ emails plus the name, address and phone number tied to that email.

The unusual nature of the request ultimately persuaded the state association representing all Florida tax collectors to get involved. An attorney for the association, Timothy Qualls, advised members not to comply, citing an exemption in state law specifically for email addresses used to send notices to taxpayers. After speaking with the association, the GOP operative planned to withdraw the request, Qualls told the tax collectors in an email obtained by the Tampa Bay Times.

Nevertheless, the episode is a window into the far-reaching and massive data operation that is guiding the effort to reelect President Donald Trump. The Trump campaign and the Republican Party boast that they have thousands of data points on every voter in America, information that they have acquired from local and state governments and consumer reports. It is a $350 million operation that is the backbone of Trump’s $1 billion reelection campaign.

“This is a standard data collection," Emma Vaughn, the Florida spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said of the GOP’s records requests to Florida tax collectors. "The Democrats should take the free advice on how to build out their data operation.”

But Anne Gannon, the president of the Florida Tax Collectors Association, said she has never before seen such a request from a political party. Gannon, a Democrat, has led Palm Beach County’s tax collection office for 14 years.

Gannon said she was unsure whether any tax collectors had complied with the request before the association intervened.

On Thursday, Qualls sent all tax collectors a seven-page memo on Florida’s open records laws that explained why these records could not be shared. The memo was also sent to Peter Christian, the Republican Party operative who requested the information, who told Qualls he would withdraw his request.

“We still wanted to send the memo in an overabundance of caution and for future reference,” Qualls told the county tax collectors in an email.

The public records exemption for these emails is scheduled to expire in October unless the Legislature renews it this year. Senate Bill 7004 would renew the exemption permanently, and it passed the Senate last week with a 37-1 vote. Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, the chairman of the Florida GOP, was the lone “no” vote. The bill is now headed to the House.

Florida tax collectors are constitutional officers elected in each county to oversee the collection and disbursement of local taxes. Over the years, they have also taken on dozens of other duties for the state, including issuing birth certificates, driver’s licenses, concealed weapons licenses and hunting and fishing permits. As it is, tax collectors maintain sensitive information about nearly everyone in their county.

The information Republicans tried to obtain from Florida’s tax collectors — addresses, phone numbers and emails — is relatively basic compared to other details they are acquiring about Americans. Trump’s campaign claims it can target people not just based on traditional voter profiles, like how often they vote or if they’re registered Republican, but on whether they are subscribed to the Golf Channel or own a gun, according to the Christian Science Monitor.

The campaign is also experimenting with programs that allow workers and volunteers to text voters en masse, according to The Atlantic, which recently published a deeply reported profile of the Trump campaign’s sophisticated operation that raised concerns about its invasive nature. The texting program, combined with targeted ads on Facebook and email messages, allows the campaign to reach voters directly and bypass traditional media with messages that often distort reality or undermine reporting on the president, The Atlantic wrote.

Times/Herald reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.