David Pepper on His Book, The Voter File and the 2020 Election
David Pepper is the former chairman for the Ohio Democratic Party. Prior to that, he served as a councilman for the city of Cincinnati and was a member of the Hamilton County Board of Commissions. Pepper has authored The People’s House, which predicted Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, as well as The Wingman, which focuses on the role of dark money in campaigns. He recently published his third book, The Voter File, a political thriller about a reporter investigating election meddling and cyber sabotage. We asked him 7 questions about his new book and what can be learned from it in the lead up to the 2020 election.
1. What motivated you to focus on election meddling in The Voter File?
When writing fiction, you always want to tell a good story. I try to do that in The Voter File. But in my books, I also try to capture some of the realities of politics—the good, the bad and the ugly. I want the reader to leave my books feeling better informed about central aspects of our political process. And the sad truth is that there are clearly hostile actors and forces out there who seek to destabilize American democracy and interfere in our elections. While there is a lot of focus, necessarily so, on issues of the security of voter machines and election infrastructure, I wanted to capture the worst case scenario if someone “broke into” a party or a campaign’s database of voters. Far more than emails or polling data (which were hacked in 2016), a campaign’s “voter file” contains the crown jewels of that campaign’s strategy for victory—and with that data, a hostile force could do untold damage to an election or campaign.
It’s one other risk we should all be on the lookout for.
2. The 2016 election spotlighted the impacts of election meddling. What influence did this have on the story?
The role played by Cambridge Analytica—a company that dove deep into Americans’ private voter data and then weaponized it using social media and other vehicles—is still a part of the 2016 debacle that is not well understood. The Voter File tries to draw out how central voter data is in today’s elections, and how dangerous it might be in the wrong hands.
3. How did your own experience in politics shape the fictional world you created?
My own experience—from being a candidate to an officeholder, to party chair today—shapes every aspect of my writing. My goal is to provide readers with a bottoms-up, unvarnished view of how politics really looks and feels, so I draw on all my experiences to do that.
4. What insight does your book offer to voters, especially those looking forward to the 2020 election?
There are lots of threads in this book I hope readers consider. One is the ever more challenging environment for mid-size newspapers to survive, and what their gradual decline means for communities and our political system overall. I also explore the growing monopolization of most sectors of our economy—from agriculture to technology—and how that not only threatens our nation’s economic progress but also risks strangling our political system.
But for 2020 in particular, I’d say the most important insight is that elections at every level matter—the presidential race may get all the attention this year, but statehouse and state supreme court races across the nation will shape our democracy for the next decade and beyond. Vote all the way through your ballots, folks.
5. Ohio voters have picked the winning candidate in every presidential race since 1960. What makes Ohio a good predictor of who will win the election?
From our mix of urban and rural, industrial, and agricultural—to the diversity of our citizenry—Ohio is one of the states that best reflects the wonderful diversity of our country. John Glenn used to say, if you were to shrink the United States into 11 million people, the result would be Ohio.
6. How has Ohio changed since 2016? How have those changes impacted mobilization efforts for the 2020 election?
Ohio has seen a tectonic shift occurring since 2016. The primary change has been an enormous shift in the voting patterns of the large suburbs outside our largest cities. Collectively, these suburbs were not long ago the “base” of the Republican coalition in Ohio. They are where Republicans like George Bush or Mitt Romney or John Kasich would run up huge numbers to win the state. But since 2016, led largely by women voters, these areas have trended increasingly blue, delivering Democratic victories at almost every level of politics. With that dramatic shift away from them in these large areas, the Republican grip on Ohio is far weaker than it was over the past decade. A well-run Democratic campaign can win Ohio.
Despite that, the heart of an effective Ohio strategy remains the same. We need to engage and inspire our most loyal Democrats in our large urban areas, running up decisive margins of victory. We have to build on the gains in the new, “blue” suburbs. And we need to engage in small towns and rural Ohio—because minimizing the margin of loss in those areas is also a critical part of a path to victory. These areas are enduring real struggles at the moment, with Trump’s broken promises and failed policies really hurting them.
7. Trump won Ohio in 2016. What has the Ohio Democratic Party been doing to turn Ohio blue for 2020?
Ever since 2016, with every tool available, we’ve been working hard to engage the three areas of the prior answer: elect Democrats and engage everywhere—urban, suburban and rural Ohio. And the strategy has paid off. We’ve made gains in all three areas, both in local races in 2017 and 2019, and statehouse and statewide races in 2018. All while we’ve been building the combination of field capacity, digital prowess, non-stop messaging, and political infrastructure, that positions us well to flip Ohio blue in November, up and down the ballot.
Bonus: What fiction and non-fiction books do you recommend for our readers to read before the 2020 election?
Before the 2020 election? With not too much time, I’d go with:
Dark Money, Jane Mayer
Ratf**ked, David Daley
Happy to recommend a lot more for later, but we got an election to win, and I need everyone reading this to work non-stop every day to flip this country blue.
Thank you David Pepper for answering our Seven Questions Read his previous interview here