Jake Campbell was one of a number of Chicagoans annoyed by text messages sent by Paul Vallas’ campaign for mayor promising to “win the war on crime” and offering a link to click for more information.
So Campbell — whose Twitter account is typically focused on all things soccer — turned to social media to vent and typed out a quick message.
“I don’t know who Paul Vallas is but he can get f—– in any and all elections for bringing this bull— to my texts,” he posted on Jan. 2.
But Campbell did more than just vent about the unwanted message.
He and another Chicagoan, Jeff Klueh, filed a class action lawsuit Monday against the Paul Vallas For All Chicago mayoral campaign, alleging the texts violate the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. The suit asks the campaign to pay each person messaged by the campaign up to “$1,500 per call.”
Vallas called the lawsuit a politically motivated “dirty trick.”
“Clearly, the strength of my candidacy is a threat to the political machine and their pay to play candidates,” Vallas said in a statement. “Our communications platform has been thoroughly vetted legally and is legal under [Federal Communications Commissions] guidelines. Everyone has the option of opting out if they so choose. Our vendors follow all rules and regulations. The nation’s preeminent telecommunications law firm will be responding accordingly and I have no concerns.”
Attorney James Vlahakis, who filed the complaint, said the case is not political.
“The goal is not to stop the Vallas campaign from issuing text messages,” Vlahakis told The Daily Line in an email. “Rather, the goal is to cause the Vallas campaign to comply with a well-known federal statute which requires that a sender have the consent of the recipient of a text message before sending an auto-generated message.”
Vlahakis declined to allow The Daily Line to interview Campbell and Klueh.
Texting campaigns to cell phones are perfectly legal, even without the voter’s prior consent, so long as the messages aren’t being sent through what’s known as an “autodialer,” according to FCC rules.
FCC rules also allow campaigns to make autodialed or prerecorded voice calls to landlines, even without the recipient’s permission.
However, autodialed live calls and prerecorded voice messages are not allowed to be made to cell phones, pagers or other mobile devices without the recipient’s express consent.
“All campaigns should follow the law,” Vlahakis said. “So if this lawsuit has the effect of raising awareness of the law, it will have a positive impact as it may result in a decrease in unsolicited auto-generated text messages.”
The Vallas campaign began texting Chicago voters back in August with cryptic messages that campaign observers told The Daily Line walked a fine line between polling and advertising.
Vallas is certainly not the first local candidate to use text messages to campaign. In recent months, Toni Preckwinkle, Kwame Raoul and JB Pritzker have all let their fingers do the campaigning in hopes of reaching voter groups that might not be reached by typical television ads or mail programs.
There are a number of ways campaigns can access cell phone numbers — services like Hustle claim to allow teams to text more than 1,000 people per hour. Those contacts see a normal SMS from a local number with customized messages. Hustle say it “is built for organizations to text contacts that they have a pre-existing relationship with, in a compliant way.”
Organizations can text anyone who previously provided their contact information, including past donors or those who provided a phone number in a petition. Hustle boasts that the “Democratic National Committee, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, 45 State Democratic Parties, 1,300+ campaigns and dozens of advocacy organizations… rallied more than 50,000 volunteers to exchange 200 million messages back-and-forth with over 47 million voters” in the 2018 midterms.
Among the messages Vallas’ campaign sent in December and January, two link to issues pages with short videos and bullet points on his proposals:
- FREE MSG. Candidate for Mayor, Paul Vallas,solves problems & gets results. Read his plan to make Chicago safe, affordable, & prosperous for all: http://v-9c.com/v4
- FREE MSG: Crime is getting worse in EVERY neighborhood. Read top mayoral candidate Paul Vallas’ plan to reduce crime & protect your rights: http://v-9c.com/v5
- FREE MSG: Paul Vallas will win the War Against Crime by bringing investment, jobs, & opportunities to ALL of Chicago. Learn more: http://v-9c.com/v8
Like other texts Vallas has sent, the websites are registered to a company called Link2Tek, a data company that offers candidate organization, data analytics, voter modeling and voter communication, including texts and voice calls.
“Link2Tek enables your campaign to utilize a uniquely interactive and multi-channeled platform to perform political and policy research, polling and candidate campaigning,” its website says. “Vital information is specifically targeted, gathered, processed, and then disseminated through an easily organized set of data and communication activities. This allows you to generate specific outcomes with a large number of individuals AND within a specified period of time.”
Link2Tek’s sales pitch offers candidates the ability to merge voter files “with consumer information to provide for in-depth understanding of voters at a granular level” and finding voter “hot buttons” to ensure that candidates are aligned with them.
Vallas paid the company $200,000 for its services on July 20, according to the Vallas campaign’s third-quarter report, and another $100,000 on Oct. 29, according to the campaign’s fourth-quarter report filed late Tuesday with the Illinois State Board of Elections.
Jay Young, the interim director of Common Cause Illinois, said such text campaigns are not anti-Democratic, but an indication ”of the money that’s flooded in our system” and the declining impact of other forms of advertising and the deluge of political news.
“People feel like they needed to find a way to cut through the constant din of political speech,” Young said. “It tends to push people further away from their political process as opposed to bringing them closer. I do not know a single person who is excited to see yet another political ad. I get them every time I’m on YouTube. Google well knows my preferences.”
Illinois Reform Executive Director Mary Miro said it can be challenging for outsiders to determine how Vallas’ team got its information.
“There are a number of ways to sneak in permissions language into apps, ads, and other downloaded items,” Miro said.