Liberty University leased an expansive list of university-owned student email addresses to Republican Corey Stewart’s campaign for U.S. Senate in a pair of rare transactions that campaign experts said represents a new front in the growing world of digital electioneering in federal races.
The Stewart campaign paid the university a total of $9,754.80 in two separate payments, according to publicly available campaign finance reports filed with the Federal Election Commission.
It is unclear exactly how many email addresses are included in Liberty’s list but in a telephone interview University President Jerry Falwell Jr. hinted it could be in the tens of thousands.
“It’s a pretty big list,” Falwell said, explaining it probably includes donors and alumni on top of students.
According to Liberty University’s website, its total enrollment exceeds 100,000, including online students.
Purchasing and selling email lists has become a common and, in some cases, a lucrative tactic for political campaigns, according to Andrew Mayersohn, a committees researcher with the Center for Responsive Politics. Campaign committees regularly acquire lists from businesses, nonprofits and even from other candidates to help boost fundraising numbers and to mobilize voters.
But the sale of student contact information from a private university to a federal candidate is a unique twist in the growing big-data economy, experts said.
According to an FEC database of federal campaign finance reports dating back to 1980, Stewart is the first and only candidate for federal office to have reported purchasing a list from Liberty.
“It’s fair to say it’s unusual,” Mayersohn said.
Campaign records show Stewart made the initial payment late last year during the Senate primary and the second payment last month.
In an emailed statement, David Corry, Liberty University’s general counsel, confirmed last year’s sale and added Liberty offers the same service to all candidates — a requirement of the university’s status as a nonprofit.
“Liberty University provides liberty.edu email addresses and mailing addresses at a set rate when a political campaign requests them,” Corry said. “This rate is consistently charged to all campaigns on an equal basis, without regard [for] political party, campaign platform or public office sought.”
Liberty officials did not respond to follow-up questions about the size of the list, the specific framework of the sale or the number of campaigns that have purchased lists from Liberty in previous elections.
The Stewart campaign did not return requests seeking comment.
Falwell said he was unaware of Stewart’s purchase but said Liberty’s practice of leasing student email addresses to candidates has been in place for “decades.”
“We only rent it out to politicians,” Falwell said. “We feel like it’s a way of informing our constituency about what the choices are and what the policies are of various politicians. We see it as a public service.”
Finance reports filed with the Virginia Department of Elections during Stewart’s failed run for the state GOP nomination for governor last year do not include payments to Liberty.
At least one local elected city official also has recently purchased an LU list.
In her successful race last year for Lynchburg Commonwealth’s Attorney, Bethany Harrison paid Liberty $1,000.70 for a “mailing list,” Virginia Department of Elections records show.
And according to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, at least one candidate for state office has reported purchasing contact information from Liberty.
In 2007, Del. Watkins Abbitt Jr. of Appomattox paid the university $158 for a “voter list.” Online records do not specify what kind of information was included in Abbitt’s list.
Based on searches of other publicly available records it is not clear if other candidates for state or local offices have recently purchased lists or other forms of student data from Liberty.
Falwell, a vocal supporter of President Donald Trump and a leading figure in the evangelical movement, was heavily featured in at least one of the campaign messages sent to Liberty email accounts, according to emails provided to The News & Advance by current and former students.
“Corey is a proven vote-getter who will win back Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat for conservatives,” Falwell wrote in an endorsement statement that appeared in an Oct. 29 campaign email. “President Trump needs a fighter like Corey in the U.S. Senate to help clean up the swamp in Washington. It is vital that we turn the tide in Virginia so that President Trump’s agenda can succeed. With that in mind, I urge Virginians to back Corey Stewart for U.S. Senate.”
According to students and alumni, the Stewart campaign has emailed at least three campaign messages to liberty.edu addresses since Monday, including an Oct. 30 email reminding voters of approaching absentee voting deadlines.
Christian Griffith, a Liberty University junior, said he first noticed the campaign messages in June. Since then, his inbox has been flooded with Stewart for Senate emails.
“I got so many that they now go to my spam box,” Griffith said. “I have a piling of them sitting in my junk mail and they’re all unnecessarily aggressive.”
Griffith said the sale amounted to a one-sided endorsement of a partisan political campaign.
“I make sure that I’m educated in political races but I know not all students do,” Griffith said. “These emails don’t give [students] the freedom to choose who they want to vote for.”
Campaigns have long recognized the value of college directories and have taken advantage of federal and state open records laws to acquire student contact information from public institutions.
FEC filings show a handful of public universities and colleges nationwide, including the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota, have provided public lists and other public student data in exchange for processing fees.
In 2017, the progressive political group NextGen Virginia obtained contact information of tens of thousands of Virginia public college and university students through a series of open records request, prompting lawmakers to amend the Virginia Freedom of Information Act earlier this year to explicitly prevent the release of student phone numbers and email addresses without written approval, according to The Richmond Times-Dispatch.
Because private universities are not subject to FOIA requests, campaigns have been effectively barred from directly acquiring contact information from private university students unless an institution opts to make the data available for sale.
Outside of Liberty, no private colleges or universities have conducted similar list transactions with federal candidates, according to FEC records. When asked if Randolph College has sold student email lists to political campaigns, spokesperson Brenda Edson said: “No we don’t and we never would.”
University of Lynchburg spokesman Bryan Gentry said it is against university policy to make students lists available for purchase.
“It does not happen now and I doubt it has taken place before,” Gentry said in an email.
Randolph College and University of Lynchburg are two other private colleges in Lynchburg.
Spencer Beall, an administrative law fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said the sale could subject students to unwanted political advertisements and may increase the likelihood of third parties acquiring the list through hacking or other underhanded methods.
“For me, it would be an invasion of privacy,” Beall said. “I wouldn’t want my email address distributed to any campaign.”
Paul S. Ryan, vice president for policy and litigation at the nonpartisan watchdog Common Cause, said campaign finance law has not kept up with the explosion in digital campaigning and warned that limited regulation could lead to “a political player spending massive amounts of money to distribute disinformation.”
But, Ryan said, the “consequences in this context seems to be spam.”
Falwell doesn’t disagree.
“I get emails everyday from dozens of people,” he said. “I’d say most emails I get are spam. That’s the world we live in.”