You have likely gotten one in the last few months. A text message from an unknown sender trying to get you to contribute to, vote for, or support a political campaign, candidate, or party. In September alone, Americans received 2.7 billion political text messages according to RoboKiller’s Political Insights Report. Another 3 billion of them are expected in October leading up to the election.
In 2012, the Federal Election Commission approved the use of text messaging to raise funds for political campaigns. And, in 2015, the Citizens United ruling did more than just allow for Super PACs to exist and raise unlimited funds; it also allowed them to fall under less stringent rules for reporting on political messaging for both robocalls and text messages.
The Federal Communication Commission Rules for Political Campaign Calls and Texts restrict robocalls to landlines and are prohibited to cell phones without the called party’s prior express consent. With cell phones almost completely replacing landlines in homes--a 2018 study by the CDC showed that 36% of American households had a landline and mobile phone and 5% only had a landline--robocalls are not nearly as effective as they once were.
As campaigns are looking for new avenues and media to reach voters and turning more and more to small, online donations, political text messaging entered as an efficient way to reach voters quickly and effectively. Text messages can be sent faster than robocalls can be made, they are cheaper than ads, and are more effective than canvassing or door-knocking.
The Bernie Sanders 2016 Presidential Campaign revolutionized political text messaging to create its grassroots support. The Sanders campaign found that when using text messaging, 98% of texts are opened, and 83% of texts are opened within the first three minutes. This compares to the open rates of emails of just 20%. Text response rates, according to a 2016 study by Gartner, are 45% compared to just 6% for emails. In a 2018 study done by the Tech for Campaigns organization, “registered voters between the ages of 27 to 50 turned out [to vote] at a rate almost 8% higher than those in that same age group that were not texted,” and among all voters, people who were sent a political text were 1% more likely to vote.
In September 2020, there were 1.8 billion political texts sent by Republican causes and 902 million by Democrat-related groups, according to RoboKiller. These outnumbered robocalls by 35 fold and 52 fold for each group, respectively. Swing states are the most targeted by both parties including Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona, all receiving more than 40 million texts each in September, with over 219 million in Texas alone. In states that are actively voting already (absentee, mail, or early voting) text messaging was high as well, with Oklahoma receiving 21,159,276 Republican messages and 4,696,929 Democrat messages. In contrast, only 17,790 political robocalls were made to Oklahomans in September according to data obtained by request to TelTech, the parent company for RoboKiller.
Political text messaging is a far more effective method of reaching potential voters, much cheaper than most traditional methods of campaigning, and can more easily skirt the FCC rules. “As text messages generally go to mobile phones, robotexts require the called party’s prior express consent. However, political text messages can be sent without the intended recipient’s prior consent if the message’s sender does not use autodialing technology to send such texts and instead manually dials them.” Peer-to-peer texting creates a loophole by manually dialing the recipient.
Political peer-to-peer text messaging is defined as when a volunteer or campaign staff manually sends personal text messages from an individual phone number to initiate a conversation with potential voters, as opposed to sending text messages from an auto dialer. This usually includes someone who is hired by a campaign or PAC to use a script and a list of numbers to manually dial and send messages to each number. Since these are technically being sent by a real person, prior consent is not required because an auto dialer is not being used.
This system of using peer-to-peer messages makes it difficult for you to block them. While you can reply STOP to opt out of a text message, it will only opt you out of receiving messages from that particular number. All they would have to do is move your number to someone else’s dial list, and they are compliant.
While campaigns aren’t picking up phone books to find you and send you a text message, they are combing public records to find your cell phone number. “When you register to vote, your voter file is public record,” said Giulia Porter with RoboKiller. “Usually you provide your phone number and it is available to campaigns.” You may have opted into or donated to a political party or campaign in the past, or you may unknowingly be making your number public on social media--some third party data collection companies can scrape through and collect this data to sell for profit.
Considering how lucrative peer-to-peer text messaging has become in soliciting not only support but also campaign and PAC donations, it is unlikely we will see any rule changes to block these new forms of often unwanted messages anytime soon.
RoboKiller is a smartphone application that helps users block telemarketers and robocalls.