Vote 4 me: Text message political ads showing up in Minnesota

Voters expect to see political ads on TV, or even in their e-mail inboxes -- but on their cell phones?

Texting is just one more way candidates and political groups get their messages out to voters.

So far, most of this texting happens between a political campaign and its supporters, who have voluntarily provided their cell phone numbers. But some outside groups have started sending unsolicited text messages to cell phone numbers. Recipients who don't subscribe to a flat rate text message service are charged if they open the messages.

Texts from a conservative political action committee called Americans in Contact PAC showed up in Minnesota this month, and at least one potential voter wasn't pleased.

"I was upset," said Aimee Kline, of Rochester, after receiving an ad Sunday evening saying Democratic U.S. Rep. Tim Walz "passed Obamacare and failed to create jobs."

"You don't expect to get political calls on your cell phone," said Kline, whose cell phone plan doesn't include unlimited texting. "I really didn't think it was legal to send unsolicited text messages."

Kline filed a complaint with the Federal Communications Commission, but it's unlikely the FCC will be able to do anything about it. Political messages sent from an e-mail address to a wireless phone are allowed under federal rules.

Americans in Contact's text message to Kline and others across the country in other congressional races were sent from, not from a phone number. Had it been from a phone number using an autodial service, it would have been prohibited by the FCC.

Americans in Contact has not returned messages seeking information about how many text messages they've sent. No phone number is listed on its website, and attempts to reach the group's treasurer, Gabriel Joseph, were unsuccessful.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Americans in Contact PAC has raised $307,000 in the 2010 election cycle and has spent $225,000 mostly on Republican candidates and an advertising company that contacts people by phone.

Because it's an outside group, text messages are being sent without the candidates' approval. And in the case of the ad Kline received in Minnesota's 1st Congressional District, neither Walz's campaign nor his Republican opponent said they were aware of the text messages.

"This is the first we've heard about it," said Jason Flohrs, spokesman for Republican Randy Demmer.

On Twitter, several people in different states reported receiving unwanted political text messages in the past week.

"Is nothing sacred?" a Nevada woman asked.

David Heyman, who lives in Maryland, said he received an Americans in Contact text message about a Virginia congressman. "[I] was especially surprised to get this text because it came to my work BlackBerry number that I never use for phone or texting," he wrote in an e-mail.

Unsolicited political text messages are a relatively new phenomenon, said Scott Perreault, a Twin Cities-based political consultant.

Perreault, who has worked with Minnesota candidates but is not advising any currently, said more candidates are showing interest in collecting supporters' cell phone numbers to send out messages about events and to bolster fundraising efforts.

"We're really going to be promoting it," he said. "It's very affordable. Once you have their information, then you can blast once a month, or whatever you need to do."

Candidates can get supporters' cell phone numbers by asking for them directly, allowing people to sign up for them on a website or by promotional ads -- the ones that encourage people to text a simple message to a certain number.

As for unsolicited text messages, Perreault said some groups might view them as a way to cope with prohibitions against robocalls, but he predicted it would go away if it annoys enough people.

"As all technology evolves, it will always be tested to its limit," he said.

Minnesota candidates are still mostly not opting to send text messages to contact voters. In the governor's race, Democrat Mark Dayton and Independent Tom Horner aren't using texting to get their messages out, according to their campaigns.

Republican Tom Emmer's campaign has mostly used texting internally, but staffers did use texting to communicate with delegates at the Republican Party State Convention, campaign spokesman Carl Kuhl said.

"It was a really useful tool for them to be able to communicate with (delegates) about when votes were coming and send out reaction to things," Kuhl said.