Inside the Conservative Voter Information Database (CIMS)

Inside the Conservative Voter Information Database (CIMS)

March 15th, 2012

CIMS rocks. You can’t win without it. — Prescient Conservative campaigner in 2004

The centrepiece of whatever group perpetrated the robocall hoaxes, and is so far known to the public only by their alias “Pierre Poutine,” must be a voter information database. In Canada, these are called Liberalist (the Liberal Party), NDP Vote, and CIMS (the Conservative Party). Those are their actual websites, yes. Although the websites aren’t much fun to play with if you don’t have a password to log in with. It is widely accepted that the Conservative database is by far the largest and the most powerful, which is what you’d expect given that party’s much deeper investment in fundraising drives across the country.

Who used what database is hard to say. Breaking into an opponent’s database might be just as useful as using your own. And at least as of 2010, Conservatives were reportedly sharing database access under the table with right-wing city-level politicians, too, explicitly in ways that wouldn’t leave a formal paper trail.

Interestingly, voter information databases occupy a legal grey area in Canada. If they were a government agency, the parties would be bound by government privacy and access-to-information laws. If they were a private corporation, they would be bound by protection of privacy and personal information laws. As political parties, they’re neither corporations nor government departments, so the only protection for your information in that database is whatever the party chooses to provide voluntarily.

The Conservatives set up the first version of CIMS by 2004, shortly after the party merger. According to former Harper insider Tom Flanagan, the software was set up with assistance from Responsive Media Group (the corporation currently suing the NDP for saying that they might have been involved in making bogus election calls back in 2011), and grew out of the Ontario PC party’s Trackright database. Initially, the process for entering data and determining user access privileges seems to have been pretty haphazard. Each riding association that wanted access to the database paid an entry fee of $2000 into the pot, and currently pays an additional $500 per year fee. Incidentally, the idea that riding associations are essentially paying consulting and services fees to the national party sounds like a neat accounting gimmick for a political party that has already been convicted in court of similar gimmickry, but whatever. That’s beside the point.

The most obvious use for CIMS, of course, is to identify who supports you and who supports the other guys. As of the time my undated copy of the secret user manual was published, the database assigned people “current” and “lifetime” political scores between -15 (definite anti-Conservative) and +15 (loyal Conservative). Note, however, that this is a very old version of the software (probably around 2007 or so). The newer version is bigger, cooler, and more Big Brother-ish. I would be very surprised if they don’t have party-specific scoring by now, given how obvious an addition that would be.

Because the database is so versatile, though, there are plenty of other issue-specific things you can do, too. Every time there’s a communication from a constituent, or they respond to a survey, that information can get plugged into their personal page. For instance, in 2005, one riding association did a petition on cutting the gas tax. We collected 800 names. Those names were entered in to CIMS and now if we decide to we could create a mailing list (or phone list) to highlight the CPC policies when it comes to gas tax. I guarantee you if gas prices go up this winter that’s exactly what we’ll do.

Initially, judging by the posts from (a conservative online forum), a lot of people really weren’t sold on CIMS. It was buggy, error-ridden, and time-consuming to use. But the Conservatives have been pouring a lot of resources into it. One commentator believes around $2.5 million in upgrades to the system might have been made in 2010. Whether that’s true or not, the system has definitely undergone major upgrades.

Where is all this leading? I’m not sure yet. But if you decided you wanted to call a huge number of suspected non-supporters and send them off to the wrong polling place, you could do it with a system like CIMS or (presumably) Liberalist. And if you didn’t have a system like CIMS or Liberalist, you wouldn’t be able to. It’s as simple as that.

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