‘My phone is constantly blowing up’: Alaska voters contend with increase in campaign text messages

Anchorage voter Carrie Harris shows one of the many texts she’s received from the Mary Peltola campaign. (Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

Are you getting a lot of text messages from candidates running for office? You’re not alone. Campaigns are no longer just using the traditional mailer or TV ad to reach voters. Now they’re increasingly popping up on your cellphone. 

While campaign workers say it’s a better way to reach more voters, some voters, like Carrie Harris, say they’re getting inundated with text messages and they want them to stop.

“I feel like my phone is constantly blowing up with texts,” said Harris, an Anchorage health care worker specializing in women’s health. “Particularly from Mary Peltola’s campaign.”

On a recent afternoon, Harris pulled out her iPhone and showed a stream of texts from Peltola’s campaign. Harris said she supports Peltola, the incumbent in the race for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat. She has donated to the campaign several times. Still, the texts are just too much. 

“Eight texts in a day is a lot from somebody whom — I already support you, you already got my vote,” Harris laughed. “I’m already sending you money.”

She’s not the only one. Frequent campaign texts like the ones dogging Harris, are becoming more common across the country. Candidates know your name, they’re wishing you a Happy Halloween and reminding you to vote, preferably for them. According to data from Robokiller, an app that helps to block and screen spam calls, Americans received more than 900 million political texts in just September of this year.

While Harris thinks donating to a campaign is behind the overflow of texts she’s receiving, Alaskans who’ve never donated to campaigns are getting texts too, even if they have an out-of-state number. 

So how do campaigns get your phone number?

The state of Alaska collects information when you register to vote. And some of that information is considered public, like your name, address and party affiliation. However, other information is treated as confidential, including phone numbers, according to Gail Fenumiai, the state’s elections director. Still, she said campaigns are able to cross-reference the public voter record information with other data sets.  

“They buy our list,” Fenumiai said. “They purchase other lists, and then they have people who are data matching experts try to merge them to get the most information, contact information they can get for a voter. And then they send emails or text messages.”

As political consultant Jim Lottsfeldt puts it: “It’s all being done right under everyone’s nose.”

Lottsfeldt is currently working with two political action committees — one supporting Peltola and the other supporting incumbent U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski. He said there is a burgeoning market to buy phone numbers, and many people give their numbers up willingly, like you may have given your phone number to a shoe store’s website when you last checked out. 

“A lot of this stuff, where you’ve voluntarily given out your name and your information and your number, is then aggregated and sold to companies, who then use it to sell to political campaigns,” Lottsfeldt said.  

He said he expects campaigns will rely more and more on texting to reach voters — as they move away from the more legacy models like calling landlines and buying print ads. 

“Like everything in the digital space, it’s just ramping up more and more and more,” he said.

Lottsfeldt said that spike in texts also can come with some resentment from the voters who are getting them.

“Political efforts are always trying to get to the voter, and the voter realizes this,” he said. “And the voter does some avoidance of the onslaught of messaging.”

That avoidance can come in the form of simply ignoring texts, opting out or using message blocking software. 

Peltola campaign manager Anton McParland said he understands that frustration from voters

“We certainly receive the anecdotes of folks who are feeling that fatigue,” McParland said. “And for every person that expresses that sentiment, I can point to others who express such appreciation for the information that’s being provided.”

McParland said the old way of campaigning revolved around a circuit of campaign events every election cycle — things like news interviews, knocking on doors and going to meetings with businesses and community groups. He said sending texts allows campaigns to reach people who previously could’ve been passed over. 

“Rather than campaigning in these very static ways that we had been doing for decades, now voters are more available,” McParland said. “We can actually engage with more voters than we ever were able to before.” 

Both McParland and Lottsfeldt say getting texts from campaigns likely isn’t going away anytime soon. In the meantime, Harris — the Peltola supporter who says she’s getting too many texts — has a suggestion. She wants campaigns to decrease frequency and increase honesty.

Here’s her dream campaign text:

“This is the way the game goes,” she said, “The candidate with the most money is going to win. And if you want these issues that are important to you to end up being taken care of on whatever stage I’m going to end up on, then you’ve just gotta send me money. So click this link really quick if you want to send $10, click this one if you want to send $20. And then we’ll stop bugging you.”  

In that case, Harris said, if a person already donated like her, the campaign could leave them alone.

a portrait of a man outside

Wesley Early covers Anchorage life and city politics for Alaska Public Media. Reach him at wearly@alaskapublic.org and follow him on X at @wesley_early. Read more about Wesley here.

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