Getting the Message

Campaigns have discovered the effectiveness of texting voters. Your lock screen won’t be safe this election season.

An iPhone with texts from presidential campaigns.
This is what your lock screen is about to look like.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

As the 2020 election approaches, TV viewers will soon face a relentless barrage of authoritative narrators reciting frightening statistics and beaming candidates approving “this message.” Inboxes are already being flooded with emails addressing recipients by name and earnestly pleading for just a few dollars before the big fundraising deadline. Facebook ads are following users around with ostensible petitions from campaigns to end the Electoral College or legalize marijuana, which are really just ways to redirect people to a donation interface. While voters may have come to expect—and learned to avoid—these traditional forms of campaign communications, they’ll now have to adapt to a new form of outreach. In an either ingenious or misguided move to cut through the noise, campaigns are increasingly relying on texting to deliver their message straight to voters’ lock screens.

Peer-to-peer texting platforms allow campaign workers to send large numbers of unsolicited texts to a list of phone numbers. Those numbers are usually harvested from voter registrations, meaning your number is almost certainly on a list. Campaigns combine data such as location and prior voting history to reach out to voters with invitations to attend rallies, requests for donations, information about polling places, and other messages intended to promote a personal connection with the campaign. The initial texts, along with most of the responses, are scripted for efficiency. The advantages of reaching voters through SMS or iMessage are clear: While many people have tuned out calls and emails, texting remains a crucial personal mode of communication. Vendors for this technology report open rates of between 70 and 90 percent.

In order to avoid running afoul of telecommunications laws, the platforms are set up so that people have to press a button each time they send a text. In practice, peer-to-peer texting usually involves a volunteer or staffer repeatedly mashing on the send button to contact up to 1,000 voters per day. Only a fraction of the recipients respond, at which point the volunteer can answer any questions and attempt to engage in a discussion.

Peer-to-peer texting made its first big splash in politics with Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid. According to the Daily Dot, field directors for his campaign began to use a peer-to-peer texting platform called Hustle to reach out to people who indicated an interest in volunteering. They found that it was particularly effective for turning out young supporters, who had been difficult to reach with emails and calls. In one case, organizers using Hustle were able to attract 338 people to a rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma. About 95 percent of the people in attendance indicated that they had heard about the event through the texts. The Sanders campaign eventually had a few thousand people each sending up to 1,000 texts a day, and election finance records show that it ultimately spent more than $1 million on software from Hustle in 2016. “It’s a very human form of communication, and that’s why we’ve seen such a great reaction to it,” says Roddy Lindsay, CEO and co-founder of Hustle. “People like talking to a human; it’s much more rewarding than a bot.”

Hustle has been growing and inspiring imitators since that first election. During the 2016 cycle, it worked with about 100 campaigns and groups, sent 5.5 million texts on Election Day, and earned at least $2 million from political clients. In the 2018 cycle, the company worked with 1,300 campaigns, sent about 20 million texts on Election Day, and earned at least $2.6 million from political clients. A number of similar platforms have also cropped up, including Relay, which was founded by alumni of the Sanders campaign and partly came to prominence for its role in helping Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez send 120,000 texts to voters in her successful run against Rep. Joe Crowley in New York. Platforms that cater primarily to Republicans also became active during the midterms, notably Opn Sesame and RumbleUp.

Peer-to-peer texting is set to ramp up again in 2020. In previous election cycles, average voters who hadn’t expressed prior support for a campaign generally received peer-to-peer texts only close to Election Day. This time around, Relay CEO and co-founder Daniel Souweine predicts people will receive these texts throughout the campaign, and at higher volumes. “You’re getting more texts because it is effective at doing the things that political campaigns want it to do: IDing supporters and helping with fundraising,” Souweine says.*

Presidential campaigns are already texting supporters, sometimes drawing pushback from unhappy Twitter users. We asked 10 presidential campaigns if they planned to use peer-to-peer texting platforms, but only John Delaney’s responded with a comment: “We have been using a platform for communications with great success.” (You can receive fully automated texts only if you’ve opted in.)

We can expect activity to really start escalating around the first Democratic debates in June, particularly in early primary states. For local and state-level races, companies like Hustle are encouraging the candidates themselves to start personally texting with the platforms to directly connect with potential contributors. These trends will translate to more texts for even the average voter.

The technology also continues to evolve. In 2018, campaigns experimented with a new type of platform that makes it easier for people to text their friends and family to encourage them to vote for a certain candidate: so-called relational texting. “In the context of traditional organizing tools, Hustle and Relay are more like phone banking or canvassing,” says Betsy Hoover, a partner at Higher Ground Labs, which has invested in Hustle. “The relational model is more like hosting a house party where you invite your friends and share what you know.” We’ll likely see more campaigns use this sort of outreach as well, with platforms like Outvote.

Although the intended goal of these texts is to allow people to engage personally with campaigns, proponents of the technology are under no illusions that everyone will respond positively to an unsolicited text. “All forms of voter contact are annoying,” says Souweine, the Relay CEO. “We’re trying to ensure people get the message about a campaign. If you’re not annoying them, you’re probably not trying hard enough.” However, he notes that there is a risk of turning voters against a campaign, which is why he recommends spacing out texts and giving people an option to opt out.

In fact, some people expect that voters will eventually become more inclined to ignore texts from campaigns, in the same way that many people have stopped responding to fundraising emails and polling calls. “I fully anticipate that voters will start to develop antibodies towards peer-to-peer texting,” Hoover says. “Vendors that are offering these services will also have to evolve and change as the public does.” Voter outreach services are already exploring Facebook Messenger as another frontier in campaign communications.

So is this all on the up-and-up? The Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) dictates that people express prior consent to receive messages from automated texting platforms. However, because campaign workers have to press send for each individual text, companies like Hustle and Relay argue that their services are technically not automated. “Nothing about this is automated,” says Lindsay, the Hustle CEO. “We just make it easy for an individual person to reach out to another person.” Under this logic, they are able to send large quantities of unsolicited texts.

“The described activity sounds like a deliberate evasion of the statute, which we are encouraging the FCC to deal with,” Margot Saunders, senior counsel at the National Consumer Law Center, wrote over email. “I do not like being the recipient of these unconsented-to texts. They clearly violate the spirit of the TCPA—whether or not they violate the letter of the law remains an issue.”

Though peer-to-peer texting companies themselves dispute the contention that their services exploit a loophole, they generally seem open to more regulation in the space, especially since the TCPA was passed in 1991, before the advent of this technology. “Our democracy, like, hinges on people communicating with other people about political campaigns,” Souweine argues. “We should actually have a pretty high deference for that kind of communication.” Souweine believes there should be additional legislation that imposes high financial penalties on campaigns that don’t comply with opt-out requests and prohibits commercial use of the technology. He also notes that there are certain lines his company won’t cross to comply with the law, such as designing a much-requested feature that would allow a campaign volunteer to send out texts to multiple people with a single click of a button.

If you receive an unwanted text from a campaign, you should text back and tell the sender to stop contacting you. If you simply don’t reply, campaigns will continue to text you. Most platforms have an opt-out feature that can quickly take a number off the texting list at a person’s request, though campaigns aren’t legally obligated to do this. “If the texts are covered by the TCPA, then the sender must stop,” Saunders wrote. “If they are not covered, there is no way to stop them.”

A coalition called the P2P Alliance is currently petitioning the FCC to provide clarity and confirm that the technology does not fall under the purview of the TCPA. However, the commission probably won’t comment by the time election season gets into full swing. So, for the time being, get ready to receive earnest texts from campaign volunteers imploring you to donate your pocket change and come out to see so-and-so speak.

Correction, April 12, 2019: This sentence originally misquoted Souweine as saying, “ideating supporters.” He said, “IDing supporters.”

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.