Political texts — messages soliciting donations, reminding voters to vote, and offering volunteer opportunities — are becoming an increasingly important part of campaign outreach, with Americans receiving approximately 39 texts for every political call in 2022.
Political texts increased in the run-up to the November midterm elections last fall. However, instead of falling in December, after most races had been decided except for Georgia’s Senate runoff, the number of texts increased, peaking at 3.7 billion messages.
According to Robokiller’s data, Republican campaigns and groups sent the majority of political texts in 2022. Republican campaigns sent nearly 12 billion texts, while Democratic campaigns and groups sent only 3 billion.
Most voters are automatically added to political texting lists. Contact information for millions of voters has already been compiled into massive databases known as data exchanges, which are managed by brokers who sell campaign access. According to the brokers, the data is gathered from public records and other sources.
Political parties have long relied on public records to help them reach out to voters. However, as the demand for highly refined political data has grown, campaigns have become more reliant on national voter databases created by these brokers.
America’s major political parties each have an affiliated political data broker that collects data from state and local parties and operates outside of the regulated campaign funding environment — Democratic Data Exchange for the Democratic Party and Data Trust for the Republican Party. Data Trust and Democratic Data Exchange both declined to comment.
Many states allow these companies free or low-cost access to voter registration records, which include a voter’s name, address, political party, voting history, phone numbers, and dates of birth.
Once the campaigns have your contact information, they don’t need your permission to contact you, thanks to a Supreme Court ruling in April 2021 that relaxed consent requirements for automated calls and texts. The court narrowed the definition of an autodialer, a type of tool used to make automated phone calls and text messages, in its ruling. Experts say that by doing so, the ruling exempted the most commonly used mass texting tools from the consent requirements.
“As a result of the ruling, we now have unlimited automated phone calls and texts,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income people’s economic well-being.
The number of complaints has increased in tandem with the number of texts sent to voters’ phones.
According to data from the Federal Communications Commission, unwanted political texts constituted the largest single group of text message complaints in 2022.
“In the last election cycle, I definitely received more texts than calls,” 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 get through using a local number. This drives me insane because I believe it’s something important, and it’s someone asking for donations or volunteering.”
Schneider stated that she had no idea how she ended up on the text message lists. “I never knowingly chose to participate in this political barrage.”
The ability to send limitless messages combined with sophisticated information harvesting capabilities — in which campaigns have access to large amounts of voter contact information — has negative consequences for those on the receiving end.
“You think you’re donating to one party or one campaign or even just one super PAC, and then all of a sudden you’re getting so many other messages,” said Porter of Robokiller.
“It has been frustrating for many people who did not want this organisation to share [their] phone number with a million other places,” she added.
Even if they don’t recall giving their consent to political texts, voters have few options for revoking it. The federal Do Not Call registry, which allows consumers to opt out of telemarketing calls and text messages, does not apply to political texts. Those with the time and inclination can instead request that their information be removed from individual campaign contact lists.
Since 2019, both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate have introduced legislation to change how data brokers request and maintain voter data. However, because none of these bills have been passed, the data broker industry is currently unregulated by federal law.
Since 2018, California, Nevada, and Vermont have each passed laws allowing residents to opt out of having voter data collected by data brokers, as well as requesting that any collected data be deleted.