Political Spampaign

Unsolicited campaign text messages are blowing up phones all over town, and it might get worse as the election approaches.


Political campaigns for the June election have opened a can of spam on smartphones all over San Francisco. Piles of political mailers are already beginning to clog mailboxes, but now campaigns have a new tool to sway voters — bulk, mass text messages are being sent to registered San Francisco voters who never signed up to receive them.

SF Weekly can confirm that at least three candidates for mayor in the June 5 primary sent out mass texts to voters in recent weekes, as did one candidate for supervisor in the Nov. 6 election. The Yes on F (city-funded attorneys for evicted tenants) campaign sent a spam text last Wednesday. A Proposition G school parcel tax message was also dispatched, but it was unclear whether it was from supporters or opponents.

That’s six campaigns that sent text spam during the last week of March and first week of April, and the primary is still eight weeks away. Plus they’re already spamming us for the November election.

Board of Supervisors President London Breed’s mayoral campaign sent out a bulk text last week reading, “I’m a volunteer with London Breed for Mayor. I just found out Supervisor Breed is hosting a meet & greet on Sunday afternoon in Noe Valley. Want to join us? :)”

Breed’s campaign acknowledged to SF Weekly that they sent these texts. Jane Kim’s campaign sent a similar mass text on March 29.

Angela Alioto’s campaign also sent an April 3 message saying, “This is Angela Alioto candidate for Mayor. Reaching out to you for the first time on opening day, GO GIANTS!” followed by a link to her website.

To the Alioto campaign’s credit, their text at least explained how to unsubscribe.

District 2 Supervisor candidate Nick Josefowitz’s campaign is also spamming out texts for his November race.

“My name’s Mack. Nick Josefowitz, who’s running for District 2 Supervisor, will be in your neighborhood on Tuesday, April 10,” said a mass text from the campaign. “Your neighbor Micah is hosting a conversation with Nick about rising crime, congestion, homelessness & cost of living. Should be fun & interesting.” That message was followed by two party popper emoji.

Parenthetically, we should note that crime, congestion, homelessness, and cost of living are not “fun” topics.

Josefowitz affirmed his campaign’s involvement. “Both of these people are real and this is from my campaign,” Josefowitz tells SF Weekly. “Mack is a volunteer and Micah is a supporter throwing a house party. The voter information is publicly available. We’ve found that people prefer to get a text message from a volunteer rather than a phone call.”

But these candidates may be miscalculating the efficacy of texting voters. “I am sufficiently annoyed that I won’t vote for anyone who spam texts me,” says a San Francisco voter named Sherri. Adding to the discourse is that some texts were addressed to wrong names, and the messages were sent at the height of the Facebook scandals involving election interference and misuse of personal information.

“I would personally never advise a campaign to send texts where it’s not clear the recipient signed up to receive texts from the campaign,” says Liz Mair, president of the D.C. political consulting firm Mair Strategies. “People tend to get really pissed off about receiving unwanted texts,” she tells SF Weekly, noting this generates a special form of hate among voters who don’t have unlimited text plans. 

“As a candidate, you do not want to get on the radar of a voter who didn’t know about you before by pissing them off,” Mair says. “And this is a very good way to do it.”

This robotexting strategy, sadly, is perfectly legal. “The state elections code allows campaigns, journalists, other government agencies, and those who are doing scholarly research to obtain what we call the Master Voter File,” San Francisco Department of Elections Director John Arntz tells SF Weekly. “The Master Voter File might include phone numbers if someone included the phone number on their registration affidavit.

“It’s an optional field,” he adds.

To unsubscribe from these messages, the Federal Trade Commission advises, “If you are an AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, Sprint, or Bell subscriber, you can report spam texts to your carrier by copying the original message and forwarding it to the number 7726 (SPAM), free of charge.”

But, you’ll probably be playing whack-a-mole. Each different campaign may be working from a different contact list, and the information may or may not have come from voter registration rolls.

“We know from cross-referencing calls to voters that we’re not the only source of information that campaigns are getting phone numbers,” Arntz says. “When we get a call from a voter saying ‘I just got this text,’ we’ll go online and look, and the phone number that we have won’t match their cell phone number — or we have no phone number on file at all for that voter.”

Campaigns can buy personal information from all sorts of online personal data merchants, not just election records. “It’s very easy to get people’s cell information,” Mair says.

SF Weekly did not find any patterns in different campaigns’ texting, indicating that they may be working from different lists. And while many texts claimed to be sent by campaign volunteers, they weren’t dispatched from real peoples’ phones. We called the phone numbers from which these texts came, only to get the standard “The number or code you have dialed is incorrect,” or “We’re sorry, an application error has occurred.” There’s not much public accountability on where these messages are coming from.

To complicate things further, many of the exact same texts were sent from different, anonymous phone numbers. These are the practices of a new text spamming industry that describes itself as “P2P Texting,” “text-message marketing,” or a “vital communications strategy for its wide reach, simplicity, and the scope of scalable personalized conversations.”  Many voters describe it as “an unwelcome pain in the ass.”

Lawmakers did pass strict, sweeping laws against spamming in their landmark 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act. But they wrote these laws so that the laws don’t apply to them.

The CAN-SPAM Act outlawed unsolicited spam, but exempted non-commercial spamming by political organizations (e.g., election campaigns). The TCPA cracks down on “automatic dialing systems,” but creates a loophole by which campaign workers can send countless thousands of messages with apps that use “spoofed” or untrackable phone numbers. That way, the sender doesn’t have to deal with the inevitable angry responses.

You can’t control which sleazy marketers are currently selling your old (or new!) data. But you can control whether your smartphone number is accessible via voter roll searches.

The Department of Elections does not advise removing your phone number from its database. “If people remove their phone numbers from their registration information, if there’s any issue with their vote-by-mail ballot or if there’s something we need to contact them about, we don’t have that information,” Arntz says.

“So we can only rely on snail mail,” he continues. “We really don’t want people to take their phone numbers off their registration record just to stop campaigns from contacting them, because it may not be the source that campaigns are using to get the phone number.”

Further, you can’t change your registration information online via
SFElections.org. As Arntz recommends, “Email is best, we have a record that way.” That email is SFVote@sfgov.org.

These mass texts are likely to become even more frequent in a double-election year, because the very lawmakers who might regulate the practice are the same lawmakers who love it as a cheap voter-engagement strategy. So as the June and November elections approach, your push notifications from pandering politicians might push you over the edge.

Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.
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