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A year out, political texts are lighting up Minnesotans’ cellphones

The first text alert popped up just after 6 a.m. Tuesday urging Dan Lauer-Schumacher to head out and vote Republican. In the hours that followed, his phone buzzed again and again. By noon, the 35-year-old had fielded at least a dozen texts urging him to support GOP candidates in places like Kentucky and Virginia.

There were two problems with the deluge of messages. Lauer-Schumacher lives in Minneapolis, where there were no candidates on the ballot. And he considers himself a Democrat.

"You can only block so many numbers for free," he said. "I just gave up."

A year out from the 2020 general election, smartphones across the country are lighting up with political texts as everyone from presidential candidates to grassroots organizers capitalize on an increasingly popular – and effective – form of voter outreach. Strategists say the approach is efficient, inexpensive and necessary, given that an estimated 96% of Americans own a cellphone of some kind.

"If you're not reaching people on their mobile, then you're missing out," said Tim Lim, a digital consultant and partner with the political company NewCo Strategies. "It's vital that you reach people on their phones."

But the sheer volume of the messages, especially unsolicited ones, is sparking backlash, including in the courts. Last month three Minnesotans sued President Donald Trump's campaign for blasting them with texts about the president's Minneapolis rally without their consent. Similar complaints have been filed against U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke's 2018 bid for Senate. But experts say that, absent a change in federal regulations, the flow of texts will likely increase in the months ahead.

Campaigns have used direct texts to rally supporters and reach potential voters for more than a decade. In 2008, then-U. S. Sen. Barack Obama announced Joe Biden as his vice presidential pick via a text message to about 3 million people. But advances in technology and voter targeting, combined with the ubiquity of smartphones and texting in general, have fueled growth of the communication strategy in recent years.