Sydney Miller is ready for the text messages from political campaigns to stop.
The 24-year-old medical student has already voted in Massachusetts, but the texts keep coming: from advocacy organizations, local candidates and even campaigns in other states where she’s never been registered to vote. She’s asked them to stop, without success.
“I feel like the only way out is for the election to be over at this point," Miller said. "I’m just waiting for Wednesday morning."
Voters’ phones have been vibrating and beeping for months with texts from political campaigns — mostly from volunteers they don’t know asking for money and votes — and many of them are about fed up.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic put a damper on in-person campaigning and volunteering, the text message was set to be a top political tool of the 2020 election season. New software allows one person to text many others without running afoul of federal rules against robotexting, and campaigns have been seizing on it since 2018 or even earlier.
But Covid-19 has supercharged texting as a campaign weapon, turning virtual text-banking — where volunteers coordinate their messages and share tips while sitting comfortably at home — into this year’s equivalent of knocking on doors or stuffing envelopes.
“I don’t think anyone really foresaw how important texting would be this cycle,” said Roddy Lindsay, cofounder of Hustle, a tech startup in San Francisco that offers texting software.
No one knows how many texts are being sent across the various cellular carriers using the dozens of software firms that have popped up, creating a new industry. RoboKiller, a spam-blocking service, estimates that the number may run into the billions based on user reports extrapolated to the population as a whole. But regardless of the number, the company said, texts are increasing quickly — and even supplanting the widely reviled robocall as a tool, which RoboKiller said declined in frequency from August to September.
“A lot of people don’t want to receive these messages, and our customers are telling us they don’t,” Giulia Porter, vice president at RoboKiller, said.
The campaigns of President Donald Trump and the Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden didn’t respond to requests for comment on their texting strategies or on consumer complaints, which in recent days have been common on social media.
Lindsay said Hustle, founded in 2014, is about to finish its highest-usage month ever. He said the number of candidates using its software is in the thousands, including local candidates who may never have thought to use texting software if not for the pandemic.
Texting is an old technology, dating to 1992, and political campaigns have for decades now blasted out mass texts to followers.
What’s new is something called large-scale peer-to-peer texting. Hustle and other software firms, such as Relay and RumbleUp, offer a dashboard from which volunteers can send written form messages with one tap or click. Each text is sent by a human, so they’re not robotexts even as they’re incredibly efficient.
It had been a legal gray area, but after years of lobbying, regulators with the Federal Communications Commission gave their blessing and ruled in June that a texting platform isn’t an “autodialer” under federal law if it “actually requires a person to actively and affirmatively manually dial each recipient’s number and transmit each message one at a time.”
Lindsay said it’s been a lifeline for political campaigns as they try to get the word out about last-minute changes to voting rules, such as the deadline to return ballots in Wisconsin.
“The courts are going one way or another every day, plus you have a pandemic, so how could you possibly get the word out to all these people in a truly real-time fashion without P2P texting?” he said, using the shorthand for peer-to-peer texting. Emails, he added, aren’t as well read as texts.
But for many people, the texts come across as spam, the 2020 equivalent of junk mail.
“This didn’t happen four years ago. I’ve never gotten this before. I’m like, ‘Whoa, what is this?’” Taylor Reed, 27, an artist and professional video game livestreamer in Los Angeles, said.
Reed said she voted about two weeks ago, though the texts keep coming. And because she lives in a state with a vibrant culture of ballot questions — California this year has 12 statewide ballot propositions, including a closely fought one over ride-share drivers — Reed gets texts for those campaigns, too.
Like other voters, she said, she’s not sure how the campaigns got her phone number, though she thinks it may have been from her voter registration. “I didn’t realize that you didn’t have to put in your phone number,” she said. “I wish they would tell you.”
Some of the wireless carriers are ready for a crackdown. AT&T said in a memo to messaging intermediaries in September that it had seen an increase in customer complaints about unwanted texts and would “more strictly enforce our guidelines and requirements on all messages, including political” ones, The Wall Street Journal reported this week. AT&T declined to comment.
That means texts are supposed to include a clear opt-out, such as the ability to reply with “stop,” and campaigns are supposed to cease accordingly. But voters said that doesn’t always happen.
“When I say ‘stop,’ they don’t respect my decision and they’ll repeat from a different number or wait a couple days” and text back, Miller, the medical student, said.
She said she’s often received multiple political texts a day, with each vibration of her phone leading to disappointment.
“Especially during Covid, you want to stay in contact with your loved ones, and then you see it’s a political text,” she said.
There are ways to report spam texts, such as copying the message and forwarding it via text to 7726, the telephone dial pad code for S-P-A-M. Last year, the Android mobile operating system began rolling out an automated spam text blocker.
The FCC has received more than 11,400 complaints of unwanted texts this year but does not have a number specific to political texts, spokesperson Will Wiquist said.
A potentially bigger problem than spam is fake texts spreading hoaxes, conspiracy theories or other misinformation. A fake text in August the morning of the Florida primary election falsely told people that a congressional candidate, Byron Donalds, was dropping out. He wasn’t, and after a scramble to correct the record, he won the primary.
The experience of receiving a campaign text may one day improve, though not before the 2022 midterm elections. Experts said the industry is examining changes such as a verification system similar to a blue checkmark on social media, so that voters may know if a text is legitimate, or a way to opt out of all texts at a statewide level.
For now, “most Americans can continue to expect texts,” RoboKiller’s Porter said. “We’re just getting to the forefront of the spam text problem.”