Calgary

Ping! More political texts expected as election season plods on

Political text messages are popping up on smartphone screens across Alberta. They're entirely legal ways for parties to reach voters, but some Albertans are finding them pretty annoying.

Occasional messages from parties, political action committees reach voters, annoying some

Calgarian Kevin Watkins says he's not pleased political parties can text random numbers. He found it distracting on the work site. (Helen Pike/CBC, Rachel Ward/CBC)

Kevin Watkins wasn't impressed when his phone started buzzing at his worksite and it wasn't a contractor with a question.

He and his coworkers received text messages from Mary at the United Conservative Party, asking how they intended to vote in the upcoming Alberta election.

"I was a little actually annoyed because we were at work so these were our work phones," Watkins said. "We were kind of like, who's bugging our phones?"

Alberta is nearly a week into election season leading up to the vote on April 16. And political parties are using various means to reach voters.

One of them is by sending automated text messages. The UCP has been sending one from "Mary." The NDP's message comes from "Ryan." And other parties and political action committees use the strategy, too.

Even Elections Alberta's deputy commissioner raised an eyebrow when the text message popped up on his own phone.

"I got one myself, and it was to a number that's not on the voter's list so I don't know where they got it from either," Drew Westwater said.

Entirely legal, lots of complaints

 Westwater  fields a handful of complaints every day from Albertans upset about political texts to their phones.

He has to explain that they're entirely legal because parties are exempt from anti-spam legislation, and they don't have to obey the federal do-not-call list, either.

Political messaging has been deemed essential for democracy, so those messages will keep popping up.

Peter Ryan is an associate professor of public relations at Mount Royal University. (Colleen Underwood/CBC)

Expect more as election day approaches, Mount Royal University public relations professor Peter Ryan said.

"It's a quick, blunt tool to figure out whether or not someone supports them," he said. "They're trying to get as much data as possible to know where they're standing in terms of the election that's coming up."

It's also effective and more efficient than sending volunteers to knock on doors, he said.

How it works

Parties buy or license software to send out automatically generated text messages. They get the phone numbers through public lists, like the voter registry, which is by law provided to them by Elections Alberta.

"They're obviously pinging those numbers from other sources," said Westwater, noting his own message came from a private number.

He said parties can get numbers from membership lists or even by randomly generating them.

The computer program automatically sends texts to those numbers and the responses are filtered into a database.

All those answers can be used to find out what party is doing well, what issues are most important, and where those people live.

Political parties can randomly generate your phone number. (CBC)

Each number can matched to an address, or sometimes the automated texts ask you provide your postal code, so the answers can be plotted on a map.

"The response that they get is helping them figure out, 'Oh, we have a lot of support in this riding. Let's make sure we send out a star candidate so that we can amplify it,'" Ryan said.

"There's lots of research that shows that the more touch points that a candidate has with a potential voter, the better their chance of winning."

'Who's Mary?'

The UCP appears to only have a computer answering the messages, Ryan said, as the response to any question is typically a request for a postal code. The party did not confirm.

The NDP said they randomly generate the numbers that receive texts. Then they have volunteers who answer, should anyone write back.

Both the UCP and NDP say the responses they've received have been overwhelmingly positive.

But Watkins didn't feel that way.

"It's annoying, for one," Watkins said. "They're almost trying to bait, like, 'Vote for us,' but they don't really say it. They're trying to test the waters."

Political action committees, like Progress Alberta, also occasionally send out texts. (Radio-Canada)

He said the texts feel like a stranger is invading his personal space, and he wishes the parties had to follow the same rules as companies and obey the do-not-call list.

"I don't even know if you're legit to start with. I don't know who sent that text," Watkins said.

"Who's Mary? ... You could be anyone, right? It could just be some guy."

Kevin Watkins says he'd prefer if political parties had to obey the national do-not-call list, like companies do. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Westwater said that "if a person is offended or does not want to receive those text messages in the future," you can ask them to stop.

Under CRTC regulations, parties must remove your contact information from their lists within 14 days of you asking. Even if you are on the federal do-not-call list, you must ask the party directly to do this.

You can add your name to the national do-not-call list to avoid commercial texts and phone calls, as well.

About the Author

Rachel Ward

Journalist

Rachel Ward is a journalist with CBC Calgary. You can reach her with questions or story ideas at rachel.ward@cbc.ca.

With files from Colleen Underwood, Helen Pike

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