Tired of political texts? 13 Investigates ways to stop the text tidal wave

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- On a recent afternoon, inside a campaign office in northwest Harris County, 13 Investigates got an inside look at the latest wave crashing on voters' cell phones. Texting. Literally millions of texts from campaigns across our area targeting your phone.

"He could literally do 100 in a minute," Ben McPhaul, with Mammoth Marketing, told 13 Investigates' Ted Oberg as they watch a campaign volunteer send texts to voters in a state house district.

Federal law prohibits automated texting, so a volunteer actually has to push a button to send them, but once they are trained, volunteers can do hundreds very quickly.

Some of the texts want you to vote, others to send money or encouraging you to bring friends to the polls. To some voters, they seem endless.

"I'm tired of them coming," John Smith told us this week at a Harris County polling place. "If I wanted to know more information, I could do it myself."

But the messages will keep coming, because research shows they're incredibly effective. Mammoth's McPhaul says 98% of political texts are opened. Almost all of the 160-character messages are read and candidates love that.

"We're able to actually communicate our message very succinctly and quickly," Republican State House candidate Justin Ray told 13 Investigates.

McPhaul's business partner, Kevin Shuvalov, sheepishly admitted his firm is likely responsible for "millions" of political texts this season. As he chuckled, Shuvalov reconsidered and dropped the estimate to "hundreds of thousands." Those are just the ones the 25 campaigns he is working with sent to voters.

"If it wasn't effective, nobody would use it," Shuvalov explained. "Its effectiveness is how short it is. It's attention span."

Both parties are on the text train. PACs, national campaigns, advocacy groups; they're all doing it. Texting became popular a few campaign cycles ago but exploded this year as fewer and fewer people answered unknown calls and COVID-19 made door-knocking unsafe and unpopular.

Texting is also cheap. Even after paying for the software to send and track the texts, a campaign can message you four or five times for the same price as a piece of mail and send thousands of texts for the price of one TV ad.

How do they find you?

Political parties buy lists of voters nationally and send them out to local and state campaigns. Even if you don't put your cell phone on your voter registration form, it's out there and it's matched to your voter file. Credit bureaus collect and sell phone numbers, some government agencies do, too. There are companies constantly trolling for your name and number to sell to marketers and politicians alike.

They also get lists of regular voters, especially party primary voters. Identifying yourself as a reliable voter with a party preference makes you more valuable.

Campaigns also monitor your replies to any texts they send. Tell a campaign what you're thinking and they'll text you back, but also save that information to target you later. Worried about COVID-19? You'll get a text about that. Willing to take a friend to vote? They'll ask who.

"We code the responses into the file because we're there and that's information that we're getting on the voter," Shuvalov explained. "Absolutely (we want to know what they're thinking). Politics is a give and take and voters have the biggest say. If we're not saying what they want, they will let us know. ... We want all of [the responses] in a database. ... It helps us later in the campaign. It informs us on certain types of voters and what their likely preferences are and how we can get to them."

The more important question is how to make them stop!

Don't look for help from the politicians sending them. While Congress passed laws setting up a Do Not Call list and laws prohibiting unwanted texts from unknown callers, they exempted themselves.

"That's not fair," John Smith, a voter tired of getting text messages told 13 Investigates. "If you're going to make a law for the robocallers, you ought to make one for yourself."

But Congress didn't. The FCC explains on its website, "As text messages generally go to mobile phones, robotexts require the called party's prior express consent. However, political text messages can be sent without the intended recipient's prior consent if the message's sender does not use autodialing technology to send such texts and instead manually dials them."

But there are things you can do.

"Text STOP to leave," Mammoth's McPhaul explained. "You hit STOP and you're removed from the list."

Many texts include the instruction and it's not a trick or a way to gather more information. It's the law. Some texting software systems automatically remove numbers that reply with "STOP."

The problem is your "STOP" text only applies to the campaign you send that to which means you have to keep replying with "STOP."

The other way out: go vote. Texting you costs campaigns cash, so smart campaigns figure out who's voted and stop sending reminder texts to get out the vote. They may still text you asking for a little campaign cash.

The one thing that will stop it for sure - at least for a little while - the election, and it's just days away.

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