Americans were bombarded with political text messages in the months leading up to last year’s midterm elections, even more so than during the 2020 presidential race, something experts attribute to a Supreme Court decision that scrapped the requirement to get the consent when sending mass text messages.
According to the call-blocking service Robokiller, more than 15 billion political text messages were sent in 2022 – about 50 messages for every phone in the country. Few states have taken steps to reduce this, and efforts by Congress have been unsuccessful.
“We’re seeing a lot more chutzpah in these marketing, SMS and political messages that aren’t necessarily illegal, but are approaching volumes that completely overwhelm people,” said Giulia Porter, Robokiller’s vice president.
Political text messages—messages soliciting donations, voting reminders, and volunteer opportunities—are an increasingly important part of campaign outreach, so much so that Americans received approximately 39 text messages for every political call in 2022.
Political texts skyrocketed last fall during the run-up to the November midterm elections. But instead of falling in December, after most races were resolved out of the Georgia Senate runoff, the number of text messages rose, peaking at 3.7 billion messages.
Republican campaigns and groups sent the lion’s share of political text sent in 2022, Robokiller data shows. Republican Party campaigns sent nearly 12 billion text messages, compared to 3 billion text messages from Democratic campaigns and groups.
Most voters do not have to do anything to appear on the political text lists. The contact information of millions of voters has already been collected in vast databases known as data exchanges, which are run by intermediaries who sell access to campaigns. The data itself, according to the brokers, is collected from public records and other sources.
Political parties have long used public records as the basis of their efforts to reach voters. But as the search for highly refined political data has intensified, campaigns have increasingly relied on the national voter databases created by these intermediaries.
The major political parties in the United States have an affiliated political data broker that operates outside the regulated campaign finance environment (Democratic Data Exchange for the Democratic party and Data Trust for the GOP) that collects data from state and local parties. Both the Data Trust and the Democratic Data Exchange declined requests for comment.
Many states allow these companies to access voter registration records, including voter name, residence, political party, voting history, phone numbers, and dates of birth, either free of charge or for a fee. low fee.
Once campaigns have your contact information, they do not need your consent to contact you, as April 2021 Supreme Court ruling relaxed consent requirements for calls and automated texts. In its ruling, the court narrowed the definition of an autodialer, a category of tool used to make automated calls and text messages. In doing so, experts say the ruling exempted the most widely used mass texting tools from consent requirements.
“The result of the ruling was that we now have unlimited automated phone calls and text messages,” said Margot Saunders, a senior counsel at the National Center for Consumer Law, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the economic well-being of low-income people. income.
As the number of text messages to voters’ phones has skyrocketed, so have the complaints.
Data from the Federal Communications Commission shows that political spam made up the largest group of text message complaints in 2022.
“I’ve definitely gotten more texts over calls in the last election cycle,” said Lauren Schneider, a project manager at a startup in State College, Pennsylvania. “My phone does a pretty good job of sending it to spam, but they often communicate using a local number. This drives me crazy because I think it’s going to be something big, and it’s someone looking to ask me for donations or volunteer.»
Schneider said she wasn’t sure how she ended up on the texting lists. «I never knowingly opted for this political blitz.»
The potential for unlimited messaging combined with sophisticated information-gathering capabilities, where campaigns have access to vast amounts of voter contact information, has negative consequences for recipients.
Robokiller’s Porter called for data sharing between campaigns regarding, «You think you’re donating to a party or a campaign or even just a super PAC, and then all of a sudden you’re getting a whole bunch of other messages,» he said.
“It has been frustrating for many people who did not want this organization to share [their] phone number to a million other places,” he added.
Even if they don’t remember consenting to policy texts, voters have limited options to revoke it. Political copy is not subject to the federal Do Not Call registry, which allows consumers to opt out of receiving telemarketing calls and text messages. Instead, those with the time and inclination can try to have their information removed from individual campaign contact lists.
Since 2019, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have introduced bills that would have reformed the way data brokers request and maintain voter data. But none of these bills have been signed into law, so the data broker industry is currently not regulated by any federal law.
California, Nevada, and Vermont have passed laws since 2018 that give residents the right to opt out of having voter data collected by data brokers, as well as residents the ability to request that the collected data be removed.