Local Elections

Get a text ad from a candidate? Invasive, maybe, but it works, say experts.

District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert speaks at the League of Women Voters candidates forum in Sacramento

District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert speaks at the League of Women Voters candidates forum in Sacramento
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District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert speaks at the League of Women Voters candidates forum in Sacramento

Sacramento County District Attorney Anne Marie Schubert is taking to texts to get her message out in her bid for re-election in June.

Schubert for two months has sought the support of potential voters via messages that pop up on cellphones. Text messaging, said Schubert campaign manager David Gilliard, is just “another tool in the tool box” of a political campaign. Real Justice, which supports Schubert's challenger Noah Phillips, also targets potential voters via texts, said Vince Duffy, Phillips' campaign manager.

Campaign texts, though not new, are part of a growing base of media strategies raising concerns among voting rights and privacy advocates. Campaigns, they say, have access to an increasing amount of voters' personal information from which to build detailed profiles of potential voters.

The text messages go out to residents who have included their cellular phone numbers in their voter registration information. The numbers are available to campaigns for use in the message ads, Gilliard said.

“It’s another way to reach voters through a medium they’re accustomed to, and it’s very cost-effective. That’s another reason why it’s so popular with candidates,” he said Thursday.

Technology, speed, cost and reach — all are factors that attract campaigns to add texting to their tool kits.

Kim Alexander, president of the California Voter Foundation, has for 25 years studied the intersection of technology and democracy. Her foundation has long held concerns about campaigns’ access to voters’ personal information, studying the issue as far back as 2002. Alexander’s study of the issue goes further back to the internet’s beginnings.

“Campaigns are able to access quite a bit of data from voters and have for a long time,” Alexander said. “It’s alarming the amount of information that campaigns have amassed. But that’s the way the system works. It’s very challenging to get any reform. There are a lot of things that we can do to make voter data less accessible to campaigns, but it’s a really challenging issue to tackle.”

Alexander said voters can call their county registrar’s office to have their phone numbers deleted from voter records.

“Nobody’s required to provide their phone numbers” as part of their voter information, she said. “We’ve done some work to make clear that it is optional.

“Text messages are a great way for elections officials to reach voters, but some won’t want to provide their phone numbers if it means a campaign can also,” Alexander continued. “I can see the appeal for campaigns, but unfortunately, what’s effective for campaigns is not so welcome for voters.”

A ballot initiative that qualified for the November ballot just weeks ago also aims to establish new privacy rights for California consumers.

The California Consumer Privacy Act, with its tagline, “Your life is not their business,” would protect consumers’ right to tell businesses not to share or sell their information, would protect consumers from being discriminated by companies told to stop selling personal data and would hold businesses responsible for safeguarding personal data.

“This initiative will give consumers a real choice about whether they want their private information bought and sold by companies they’ve never heard of, will help shine a light onto the business of data brokerage, and will empower California consumers to protect their sensitive personal information,” Alastair Mactaggart, campaign chairman of Californians for Consumer Privacy, said in a statement.

But political campaigns are permitted secondary users of data, said Alexander. Voters’ information comes from county and state elections offices and from commercial sources, she said.

Campaigns can use so-called voter data brokers — companies that collect and sell data — gathering all sorts of information, from a voter’s party affiliation to whether that voter prefers to vote at the polling place or by mail to their home’s value and subscription data to help campaigns create more granular profiles of potential voters.

The data is then “massaged and merged with other records to create a more elaborate profile of the voter,” Alexander said.

“If the campaign is legitimate, companies like ours can sell those numbers,” said Paul Mitchell, vice president of Political Data Inc., the Norwalk-based firm that bills itself as California’s “largest provider of voter information to political campaigns.”

A quick look at the company’s Twitter feed shows the deep dives its clients have come to expect.

One voter tracker looks at partisan and ethnic turnout by congressional and legislative district. Another in the works will present models for independent voters’ partisan leanings, an ideology scorecard and tools to help hyper-local campaigns such as city councils and school boards. Yet another tool matches campaign volunteers to their friends in the campaign’s voter file.

Text messaging “is becoming a growing part of campaigns,” Mitchell continued. “Campaigns reach people through multiple mediums: getting mail is invasive; phone calls are invasive; Facebook is invasive. This is another one of those ways — and it works.”

But the concerns of organizers of the California privacy initiative echo Alexander’s. She says the push for personal data may drive some away from the ballot box.

“This has been a longstanding concern of ours. There are a lot of people who aren’t voting because they don’t want to make their private life public,” Alexander said. “People are missing from voter rolls because they want to protect their privacy either for safety reasons or because they want to be left alone.”

Voter information, she said, “is not publishable, but it is public.”

“What we recommend is to give voters control of their own data, to let them identify how they want to be contacted,” Alexander said. “Then, campaigns will know they don’t want to be called. That way they could provide their information to elections offices — not a campaign.”

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