The use of political text messages increases in Kansas. But why?
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With Election Day just around the corner, many residents in Douglas County have found they are receiving political messaging in a much more direct manner — through text messages.
Shanna Shafer, an unaffiliated voter in Lawrence, said she has received several text messages from both political parties encouraging her to vote, sometimes for a certain candidate.
While some have offered links to more information, allowing her to know which political party or group is sending the messages, others have been vague.
“I’m not really pleased with the texts. (It) feels like an invasion of privacy for sure,” she said. “I’ve responded to a couple of them, just to see if there is actually a person on the other end. When I don’t get a reply, it makes me a little vexed.”
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Kansas cellphone users began receiving text messages that were purportedly from President Donald Trump in late October. Top Kansas Democrats criticized the messages, claiming they were meant to confuse voters.
But many residents responding to a Journal-World reporter’s inquiry on Twitter said they have gotten other political text messages in recent days. Some of them come from groups that clearly identify themselves, but others are anonymous and vague.
Not everyone is upset with the messages. Ryan Waggoner, a Lawrence Democrat, said he’s received messages reminding him to vote and asking him to volunteer for Democratic causes.
“It doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I think it’s a good way to reach people. I’m more likely to respond to a text message than I am to answer a phone call from a number I don’t know.”
So when did text messaging become a political outreach tool?
Patrick Miller, a political scientist at the University of Kansas, said he began to receive the messages purportedly from Trump before the president visited Kansas in early October. But this isn’t the first time he’s seen text messages used as a political tool.
“I remember getting text messages way, way back in the day when you really had to type (messages) letter by letter in 2004 and 2006,” Miller said with a laugh, noting former President Barack Obama and the late Sen. John McCain both used text messaging during the 2008 presidential election. “Almost from when cellphones became very common, campaigns were starting to try to use this.”
But this may be the first time Kansans have really seen it come up. Miller said this election cycle is the first time he’s seen text messages used to encourage voting in this state.
“It’s become a more common technique that campaigns have used,” Miller said. “Whether or not it’s actually being done depends on if anyone is paying for it, just like you are only going to get mailers or TV ads if someone is paying to send those out.”
While the messages have increased in the local area, its not clear if they are really helping anyone. Miller said studies show they don’t make much of a difference in persuading voters to vote for a certain candidate.
But if the text messages make one person out of every 1,000 people messaged vote for a certain candidate, then those candidates are probably happy they used the tactic, he said.
In Douglas County, local residents will be asked to vote in two close elections — the Kansas governor’s race between Republican Kris Kobach and Democrat Laura Kelly and the second congressional district between Republican Steve Watkins and Democrat Paul Davis. Polling shows both races are tight.
Is it possible Kansas voters are seeing the text messages used as a tactic now because elections in this area are much closer than normal years?
“All things equal, if you are trying to mobilize voters or persuade voters, you’d rather put your money into TV ads or door-to-door canvassers,” Miller said. “But if you have the money there to do it, there is nothing to suggest that it hurts.
“It’s an overwhelming, massive waste of money, but again, if the entire effort gets you a handful of votes, that could be very important,” he added.
While there are studies that show how effective the tactic is, Miller said there hasn’t been any studies on how people feel about receiving them. He said he personally finds them annoying.
But one Kansas organization using the tactic believes it has been an effective way to reach people, even if it angers some.
Davis Hammet of Loud Light, a Topeka-based nonprofit that seeks to increase turnout among young voters, said his group sends messages to registered voters between the ages of 18 and 29.
He said the organization chose to get in on the text message game in 2017 in an attempt to increase voter turnout for local elections, which a new state statute had moved from April to November. Loud Light does not work to encourage voting for a specific candidate or political party, solely focusing on educating young voters on how and where to vote and sharing voter guides from local media outlets.
He thinks people are more likely to respond to Loud Light’s nonpartisan messages rather than those sent by political parties or groups, because it’s a more private way for them to ask questions about voting.
“On a text message they are more comfortable to ask those questions, versus on a social media post they may not,” he said. “People are kind of insecure about asking basic questions, and text is very private and comfortable.”
Additionally, Loud Light uses real people to send the message, while others will just use mass messages.
One concern for people receiving the messages is how the organization got their phone number. Depending on the voter, cellphone numbers are often a matter of public record, free for anyone to look up.
When residents register to vote in Douglas County, they are asked to provide a phone number, said Douglas County Clerk Jamie Shew. The registration does not designate what kind of phone number, so many people list their cellphones, he said.
Voter registration information is a public record, which allows the political and nonprofit groups to obtain it, as long as they are specifically using it for purposes of encouraging voting, Hammet said.
Loud Light gets the voter information every morning, which also notes who has already voted. That means that if someone is sick of receiving messages, they have a way to stop them, Hammett said.
“The silly thing is, if you don’t want to be texted, just go vote early,” he said with a laugh.