Those texts and emails? They're not from your friends

Primary voting in Richfield
Rolls of "I Voted" and "Future Voter" stickers ready to be handed out at the Catholic Church of St. Peter in Richfield on Aug. 14, 2018.
Angela Jimenez for MPR News


The text message begins like an excited greeting from a friend whose number you forgot to save in your contacts.

But then it turns into something else. It's from a stranger named "Rayann," and she wants to inform you that she just cast her first primary election vote.

"Now, I'm volunteering to get out the vote for the most progressive candidates," says Rayann.

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That text message, delivered on Aug. 14, the day of Minnesota's 2018 primary election, was part of a push from the campaigns to get state Rep. Erin Murphy and Ilhan Omar to the November ballot for governor and Congress (Murphy didn't win the primary, but Omar did).

As campaigns move on to November, you can expect plenty more messages urging you to vote, and not just texts, but also emails, direct mail, contact on social media platforms and personal visits to your home.

For some, receiving something as personal as a text message from a campaign can feel like a privacy violation. But it's perfectly legal and easier than most people realize for candidates to figure out your phone number, where you live and if you're likely to vote this fall.

And in some cases, you may be unknowingly sharing your information with campaigns.

Wait, so how does a candidate legally get my cell phone number?

Many states make the most basic voter data available — for a price.

In Minnesota, the secretary of state's office provides reports on registered voters in the state, which include their address, year of birth and voting history, including what years someone voted and if they voted in the primary election, general election or both. Phone numbers are not required information when registering, but if a voter does include it, they are unknowingly making that information available to campaigns.

This data for the entire state is available to residents for just $46, or $30 for a smaller, targeted geographic area. Minnesota law restricts the use of the data only to purposes related to elections, political activities, or law enforcement.

What information is kept private?

Each state sets its own laws about what voter information gets out. In Minnesota, for example, public voter information doesn't include things such as gender, race or a person's criminal history. It also does not include email addresses.

Does the information include who I voted for?

It does not: the content of your ballot is always private. In Minnesota, you also don't have to register with a political party to vote, so there's only sophisticated guess work done by campaigns as to whether you're a likely Democratic, Republican or independent voter.

So, who exactly is requesting voter data from the state?

Sifting through that data, especially for the entire state, requires a certain level of skill, which is why it's usually only requested by major political parties, campaigns or data mining companies. They do the hard work of analyzing the information and creating lists of registered and likely voters.

There are national groups that sell that information to campaigns, but local political parties and candidates also tap into it to build their own voter lists that can be used by staff, volunteers and candidates endorsed by the parties.

The parties use this data as a starting point. As activists knock on doors and make direct contact with voters, they add their own data, including things like email addresses and whether someone is a confirmed Democratic or Republican voter.

"I don't think anybody should assume that if they are hearing from a campaign that the campaign actually knows anything about them. They could just be using the phonebook," said Meta Brown, a data analyst and consultant. "At the other end, they could know a lot, because the parties, the campaigns and some vendors, if they have a list of people, they can enhance the data by adding additional information that can come right from any source they can find."

It might feel like a privacy violation, but if a campaign got your number through public voter records or other means, it's legal for them to send you a text message. It's not much different than the rounds of robocalls campaigns have been doing for years, and it's probably much more effective for candidates in the modern era. They can send out hundreds of text messages at once, and more voters are ditching their landlines in favor of cellphones.

Do candidates pass around my information?

They can and often do, especially nationally. Barack Obama's presidential operation was famous for its sophisticated use of voter data and lists, and many other candidates have paid to rent a piece of that over the years. Before he left office, former Minnesota U.S. Sen. Al Franken pulled in some major dollars renting his voter lists to other Democratic campaigns.

What about social media sites? Are they giving voter information out to campaigns?

Many people assume social media sites are coordinating with campaigns, especially after the recent news that Cambridge Analytica acquired Facebook's data to build psychographic profiles of users and their friends for the last election.

Facebook, however, said that was improper use of their data and they've taken steps to try and prevent it from happening again. But even outside of an unauthorized data breach, most social media users don't realize they're probably opting into being targeted by campaigns through their daily activities online.

If you've ever used a Facebook app to access information, or even signed up for a food delivery service, you could be making your data available to a potentially much broader network. Read the terms of services before agreeing to allow access.

Can I opt out?

There are a few ways to limit contact with campaigns, including being careful about your personal data. In Minnesota, you can also leave your phone numbers off of your voter registration form, and if you get one of those text messages from a candidate, simply ask to unsubscribe from continued contact.

But plenty of data, including addresses, is largely a matter of public record and there's no opting out. And there's democratic value in making it possible for candidates to connect with potential constituents, even if it can feel intrusive.

"Most people can't keep the fact that they exist a secret," Brown said. "There are so many ways that information is recorded. The fact that you exist and that you live in a certain place is simply not private."