Some Tacoma voters surprised to get political texts recently. Are they a legit tool?

Lisa Keating is a candidate for Tacoma school board. She sent text messages to voters during her 2019 campaign.
Lisa Keating is a candidate for Tacoma school board. She sent text messages to voters during her 2019 campaign. Courtesy

When first-time candidate Lisa Keating ran for Tacoma school board, she also entered a national debate over the use of text messages in political campaigns.

On the contact page of Keating’s campaign website, there’s a space that gives people an option to type in their cell phone number and a box below it labeled, “send me text messages.” People can uncheck the box or keep it checked if they want texts.

But some Tacoma residents said they received texts from Keating’s campaign who didn’t sign up. They wondered how their cell numbers were obtained. The campaign said it sent between 3,000 to 5,000 texts.

Political consultants said a common way to obtain cellphone numbers is to get the state’s voter registration database and cross-reference it against databases sold by private companies that harvest cell phone numbers from various sources, such as magazine subscriptions or extended warranties.

That’s not how it happened in the Keating campaign, said Jason Bennett, president of Argo Strategies, the Seattle campaign consulting firm that worked on her campaign. The campaign obtained its voter information solely from the state Democratic Party and did not use third-party vendors, Bennett said.

He said those who didn’t sign up to get texts from Keating’s campaign had agreed to get political texts through other Democratic circles. As a result, he said those people did not receive unsolicited texts.

“These folks have opted in at some point during their lives into communications through the state Democratic Party. That is where we get the voter file from. They either went to a Democratic caucus in 2016 or 2008 and filled out some information, or they filled out an online survey that the party sent out. That is the only way that we have obtained those numbers. It’s through the state Democratic voter file,” he said.

The state Democratic Party does not use data sold by private companies that collect cell phone numbers, said William Casey, a party spokesman.

It’s optional for people who register to vote to provide their phone numbers and e-mail addresses to the state. The Secretary of State’s office said the voter registration database is a public record, but phone numbers and e-mail addresses are not provided to requestors such as political parties and companies.

Josh Amato, co-founder of Mercer Island-based Sermo Digital, said his firm “hates” the use of unsolicited texts in campaigns. He said the practice has targeted Washington voters for about three years.

“We don’t think it’s effective because it’s so invasive. Text messaging is something you do with friends and family. People aren’t used to receiving unsolicited text messages. Maybe in 10 years if it keeps going, people will get used to it, and it will be just like calls you don’t necessarily want, but I don’t think that is going to be the case,” he said.

According to the Federal Trade Commission, it’s illegal to send unsolicited text messages from an auto-dialer — equipment that stores and dials phone numbers using a random or sequential number generator.

Amato said he has heard that people are using an app to speed the sending of texts.

“Not in bulk, but one at a time. Two taps of your finger to send an individual, prepackaged text,” he said.

Bennett, the president of the firm that worked on Keating’s campaign, said all texts were sent manually.

Keating said campaign texts are inexpensive compared to other ways of reaching voters. She said some people contacted her about how her campaign got their cell numbers, and she was transparent in answering questions.

“To recruit volunteers, we use text messages because a lot of folks won’t respond to emails or answer their phone. So a text is another natural way for us to reach out to supporters and voters. A lot of people don’t have land lines either,” she said.

Political candidates understand that text messaging is a valuable communications tool and can be more of a personalized experience than TV, radio and internet ads, said David Carter. He is a partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm that specializes in the 1991 federal law that protects consumers from unsolicited telemarketing calls and recorded calls referred to as “robocalls.”

“The question we really have to ask is, `How do you balance that frustration of getting text messages with our democracy?’ When we have declining participation in democracy, we have some significant issues about the future of politics in America. New technologies that encourage people to show up and participate is not something we should shut down, even if some people might get annoyed here and there,” Carter said.

James Drew covers the state Legislature and state government for McClatchy’s Washington papers: The News Tribune, The Olympian, The Bellingham Herald and The Tri-City Herald.