As local elections loom, voters drown in political text message spam

As local and state elections roll around, so do the unsolicited political text messages.

(Image: file photo)

NEW YORK, NY -- If you were spammed this weekend by a local political campaign, you weren't alone.

Polls are now open in local elections around the country, where state legislatures and mayoral races around the US will be decided after months of unrelenting campaigning.

But as political candidates fight for every vote, some campaigns have taken to aggressive, last minute tactics -- like blasting their constituency districts with spammy text messages.

ZDNet has seen reports and tweets of screenshots of text messages from several New York-based candidates in the past few days, pushing local residents to vote for a particular candidate or calling for campaign donations.

Michel Faulkner, a candidate for New York City Comptroller, sent out a text message blast on Sunday asking city residents to donate to his campaign. The text included a link to his website, which was offline for about half-an-hour after the text was sent.

"Just the way to get people to vote for you," said one local resident, in a tweet.

Another text message campaign was sent by Jabari Brisport, a candidate for New York City Council. The message called on residents of the Brooklyn neighborhood where the candidate is running to vote for him.

That drew ire from one local resident, who said the unsolicited message could influence how they would vote Tuesday.

"I usually vote Democrat down the ticket, but it's definitely an experience that made me remember his name in a negative light," the district constituent told ZDNet.

For years, state and federal election candidates have used text messages as a way to solicit votes or contributions from their constituents. Use of text messaging first rocketed during the 2008 presidential campaign, and has only escalated in size and scale -- no more so than during last year's election.

But the law is clear: it's illegal for companies to send text messages to individuals who haven't given prior consent.

Craig Engle, an attorney at Washington DC.-based law firm Arent Fox, said that the Telephone Consumer Protection Act protects consumers from receiving unsolicited political calls and texts to cell phones unless the sender has obtained prior consent.

But there's a catch: political emails and text messages are considered non-commercial, and are exempt from the law.

After all, these campaigns aren't trying to sell you anything -- they just want you to donate or vote for them.

But questions remain over how residents' phone numbers are obtained by campaigns.

A Brisport campaign spokesperson told ZDNet that the phone numbers used to send two separate text messages by the campaign were obtained from New York's Board of Elections. "We used the contact info from the board of elections in order to text voters who are registered in the district," said Virginia Ramos Rios, campaign manager, in an email. Each text was sent by a campaign staffer through a local New York phone number, allowing residents to respond to the campaign directly.

But how the Faulkner campaign obtained the phone numbers used in his text message campaign is less clear.

Faulkner's campaign used a short code text message system to mass-text a list of targeted phone numbers from CallFire, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company, which allows users to send out automated calls and texts. Each text costs money, so campaigns have to limit the number of messages they send to a few thousand, rather than randomly cycling through cell numbers that risk sending texts into the void.

But one stand-out question is why text messages were sent to local cell phone numbers of this reporter -- a non-citizen, who isn't permitted nor registered to vote, and to his knowledge, has never provided his cell phone number to the city.

When reached by phone prior to publication, Faulkner's campaign manager Jay Golub said he would "get back" to us with an answer, but did not respond to several attempts to follow up.

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A spokesperson for New York's Board of Elections did not respond to several emails and calls requesting comment.

We reached out to several people who also got a text message from Faulkner's campaign, but nobody we spoke to knew how their phone numbers had been collected.

"Many people complain they didn't give permission to receive these calls but in fact they may have by giving permission to a related entity that is passing the permission to the political caller," said Engle.

It's not as uncommon as you might think. If you've ever granted a Facebook app access to your basic information, your phone number could've been swept up in that and sold on to an advertising company for profit. You can sign up to any site or service that sends you text messages to tell you when your take-out food order is on its way, but when the company gets acquired or sold, so does your data.

One former senior staffer for a presidential candidate's campaign (who did not want to be named for the story) told ZDNet that phone numbers are often traded -- bought and sold -- like a commodity.

"You can buy lists of long-codes of people's phone numbers, of people who've opted in to text messages," said the person. "You and I could buy a list that's legally opted-in and we can send a message."

The person said that people almost never read the terms of service. "When you signed in to some social app or when you shared your phone number with your bank, any of those folks could've sold on your information," the person said. "But it doesn't mean that people remember."

And as frustrating as unsolicited text messages are, political campaigns tend to stay within the lines of the law -- even if they have to be reminded of the rules from time to time.

"Campaigns are very risk averse in pushing those boundaries because they don't want to get caught or kicked off the ballot, so they won't do something too sketchy," the person said.

Engle said that the best action to take is to simply respond to unsolicited text messages with "STOP."

"That in theory should take you off the list," he said. "If that doesn't work, a complaint could be filed with the FTC."

Political campaigns are in no hurry to stop using text messages in their campaigns. President Obama's successful 2008 campaign set the gold standard for using text messages in his winning campaign, a departure from John McCain's use of robocalls.

But local elections are a different beast altogether. With fewer voters than on the national scale, local political campaigns have to be smarter, and more precise and targeted with their marketing. Every vote matters -- especially when the race is tight, or when the turnout is low.

Text message blasts could help voters remember a candidate's name in the voting booth, but is a pesky spammer really the best person for the job?

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Zack Whittaker can be reached securely on Signal and WhatsApp at 646-755–8849, and his PGP fingerprint for email is: 4D0E 92F2 E36A EC51 DAAE 5D97 CB8C 15FA EB6C EEA5.

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