Americans were bombarded with political text messages in the months leading up to the midterm elections last year, even more than they were during the 2020 presidential race, something experts attribute to a Supreme Court decision that eliminated the requirement to obtain consent when sending mass texts.
More than 15 billion political texts were sent in 2022 according to call-blocking service Robokiller — about 50 messages for every phone in the country. Few states have taken action that would curtail this, and congressional efforts have been unsuccessful.
“We are seeing a lot more brazenness in these marketing, SMS and political messages that are not necessarily illegal, but are approaching the volumes that people are getting completely overwhelmed by,” said Giulia Porter, Robokiller’s vice president.
Political texts — messages asking for donations, voting reminders and volunteer opportunities — are an increasingly important part of outreach strategy for campaigns, so much so that Americans received approximately 39 texts for every political call in 2022.
Political texts spiked last fall during the run-up to November’s midterm election. But instead of falling in December, after most races were settled outside of Georgia’s Senate runoff, the number of texts actually increased, peaking at 3.7 billion messages.
Republican campaigns and groups sent the bulk of political texts sent in 2022, Robokiller’s data shows. GOP campaigns sent nearly 12 billion texts, compared to 3 billion texts for Democratic campaigns and groups.
Most voters don’t have to do anything to wind up on political text lists. Contact information for millions of voters has already been collected into vast databases known as data exchanges, which are managed by brokers that 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 foundation of their voter outreach efforts. But as the search for highly refined political data has escalated, campaigns have increasingly relied on national voter databases created by these brokers.
America’s major political parties have an affiliated political data broker operating outside of the regulated campaign funding environment — Democratic Data Exchange for the Democratic party and Data Trust for the GOP — that collects data from state and local parties. Both Data Trust and Democratic Data Exchange declined requests for comment.
Many states allow these companies to access voter registration records — including a voter’s name, residence, political party, voting history, phone numbers and dates of birth — either at no cost or for a low fee.
Once the campaigns have your contact info, they don’t need your consent to contact you, as an April 2021 Supreme Court ruling loosened consent requirements for automated calls and 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 commonly used mass texting tools from the consent requirements.
“The result of the ruling was that we now have unlimited automated telephone calls and texts,” said Margot Saunders, senior counsel for the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit that advocates for the economic well-being of low-income people.
As the number of texts to voters’ phones has skyrocketed, so too have the complaints.
Data from the Federal Communications Commission shows that unwanted political texts made up the largest single group of text message complaints in 2022.
“I’ve definitely received 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 get through using a local number. This drives me insane because I think it’s going to be something important, and it’s someone looking to ask me for donations, or to volunteer.”
Schneider said she wasn’t sure how she ended up on the text message lists. “I didn’t ever knowingly opt into this political barrage.”
The potential for limitless messaging combined with a sophisticated information harvesting capabilities — one where campaigns have access to large amounts of voter contact information— has negative consequences for those on the receiving end.
Porter, from Robokiller, called the sharing of data across campaigns concerning, “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,” she said.
“It has been frustrating for a lot of people who didn’t want this organization to share [their] phone number to a million other places,” she added.
Even if they don’t recall consenting to political texts, voters have limited options for revoking it. Political texts are not subject to the federal Do Not Call registry, which allows consumers to opt out of telemarketing calls and text messages. Instead, those with the time and inclination may 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 how data brokers request and maintain voter data. But none of these bills have been enacted, so the data broker industry is not currently regulated by any federal law.
California, Nevada and Vermont have each passed laws since 2018 giving residents the right to opt out of having voter data collected by data brokers, as well as giving residents the ability to request any collected data to be deleted.