Why You Get So Many Political Campaign Texts – And What You Can Do About It

While waiting to vote, the group of people stand in line at the community center and use their phones. Credit – Getty Images

Are you drowning in political campaign texts? You’re not alone.

As the November 2024 election approaches, Americans across the country are experiencing a surge in text messages from political campaigns vying for their attention, donations and votes. According to Alex Quilici, CEO of call-blocking company YouMail, more political texts have already been sent in 2024 than in all of 2023.

For some, the incessant buzz of political campaign texts has become a daily annoyance, filling phones with unwanted notifications and making it challenging to separate legitimate outreach from potential scams. But there’s a reason you keep getting them: Political campaigns have increasingly turned to text messaging as their preferred method of communication, edging out traditional methods like mailers or phone calls due to their relatively low cost and high engagement rates. “When you see more of something, it means it’s working,” Quilici says.

Even some of the researchers who paved the way for campaign messaging are frustrated by the volume. “Text messaging is an important tool, but of course I, like a lot of people, get frustrated by the number of text messages I get and how often I have to send a STOP message,” says Melissa Michelson, a dean at Menlo College who conducted an experiment decades ago to see whether text messaging could be used to increase voter participation in San Mateo County, California. Her research contributed in part to the widespread adoption of text messaging in political campaigns today. “I’m sorry about that,” she says.

Why do you get so many campaign texts?

In the digital age, political campaigns have embraced text messaging as a critical component of their outreach strategies. Unlike emails that often go unread or phone calls that go unanswered, text messages offer a sense of immediacy and are quickly seen by recipients.

Quilici, whose company tracks and analyzes political text volume, says this direct line to voters’ personal devices allows campaigns to deliver targeted messages, solicit donations, mobilize volunteers and provide crucial updates on campaign events — all with a few taps on a smartphone screen. “Political campaigns know that it costs next to nothing to send texts and that enough people respond to them to make it valuable,” he says, adding that younger generations are more likely to respond to texts than to calls from unknown numbers.

YouMail research shows that Republicans will outnumber Democrats in political text messages by at least a 2-to-1 ratio in 2024 (with the exception of one week in early March).

The process of obtaining phone numbers for texting is simple. Campaigns can obtain these numbers by using extensive databases and digital tools designed to collect and use voter contact information. In the U.S., political parties and campaigns have access to voter registration data, which typically includes voters’ phone numbers along with other demographic information. This data is typically maintained by state and local governments and is considered public information, allowing campaigns to access it for their outreach efforts.

Some campaigns also use data brokers that specialize in collecting and selling consumer data, including voter information. These brokers compile massive databases that aggregate publicly available data such as voter registration lists, consumer purchases, social media activity, and other sources, allowing campaigns to create detailed voter profiles that can be used to target specific demographics.

But before political campaigns can send mass text messages, they must register with a relevant text message registry to verify the campaign’s legitimacy and ensure compliance with industry standards for opt-in and opt-out procedures set forth by CTIA, a wireless trade association, and U.S. carriers. Once a campaign receives approval from the registry, it can use a mass text message service provider to send messages on its behalf from a designated phone number.

Now that texting has become a mainstream communication medium for campaigns, Michelson says its effectiveness has evolved and campaigns now need to carefully consider how to effectively target their efforts. “The reason texting was so effective 15 years ago is because it was uncommon,” Michelson says. “Once it’s no longer uncommon, it becomes easier to ignore and less effective. And so campaigns need to think about: Who is texting effective for? And how should I target my efforts?”

How to make them stop

People who want to prevent campaigns from sending text messages can typically opt out by replying “STOP” or blocking the sender’s phone number.

Political campaigns must obtain your consent before sending automated messages, and they must honor your opt-out requests when you reply “STOP,” as set forth by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Once you opt out, you should not receive any further messages from that campaign, not just from the specific number to which you replied. Failure to comply with this regulation may result in the campaign’s messages being blocked by carriers in the future.

Sometimes, malicious actors will abuse political texts to trick recipients into clicking on malicious links or revealing personal information, usually by posing as legitimate campaigns or candidates and urging recipients to take immediate action without verifying the sender’s authenticity. If you suspect a campaign text is not legitimate, the FCC advises recipients to report suspicious texts as spam by forwarding the message to 7726, which may prompt the mobile carrier to investigate the sender and block future messages. Most smartphones have a built-in spam blocker that allows users to suppress messages from unknown senders. There are also many filtering apps that users can install that will flag legitimate texts as potential spam.

Quilici says Americans should always treat political text as a warning sign and never click or interact with it unless they can verify it’s legitimate. “If you get a text message saying President Biden needs your help, take the extra effort and find out how to donate online,” he says. “Don’t just click on a link that’s sent to you.”

Write to Nik Popli at nik.popli@time.com.

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