National News

Election 2018 Misinformation Roundup: ‘Problematic’ Text Messages and Inaccurate Mailers

Posted October 30, 2018 8:10 p.m. EDT

To help readers better understand the information landscape in this election season, journalists at The New York Times have been collecting examples of electioneering that have the potential to confuse or mislead voters.

Texts from ‘Trump’

It’s an old get-out-the-vote technique applied to a new medium. Voters in several battleground states are receiving text messages telling them that their ballots have not yet been received. The messages then invite recipients to visit a website run by the Republican National Committee, where they are asked to enter their email address and other information.

Rebecca Mase, a clinical research project manager at the University of Michigan, received a text that said it was from “Pres. Trump” and warned Mase that her ballot had not been submitted. But Mase, who described herself as a “longtime Democrat,” said that she had recently submitted an absentee ballot and even checked to make sure it had been received. She later got a second text message telling her that her ballot was still “outstanding.”

Such reports prompted at least one county clerk in Michigan to issue a warning that public officials do not communicate with voters through text.

“Campaigns are increasingly using text messages to communicate with voters, and this appears to be part of that,” said Fred Woodhams, the Michigan Department of State communications director. “Based on how it has been described to us, it doesn’t appear to be a phishing or misinformation campaign.”

A common get-out-the-vote tactic is to shame people into voting by making clear that people know whether they voted, and then provide information about how to vote, according to Wendy Weiser, who directs the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. But, she said in an email, “it is problematic when the information conveyed by text is not true (such as, when the person being targeted had, in fact, voted).”

“It is even more problematic when an untrue communication is made in the name of a government official whom the recipient might assume is providing official information (such as Donald Trump),” she added.

According to Doug Hochberg, the Republican National Committee chief digital officer, the campaign committee is spending $3 million on so-called peer-to-peer texting. He described it as an “incredibly effective way” to mobilize voters and said the party was “already seeing early success from our investment.”

Last week, The Daily Beast reported that similar texts had been received in Kansas, and, according to the state elections director, the Kansas secretary of state’s office had gotten 50 to 60 calls about them. “The office is now working to determine if they are lawful,” The Daily Beast said.

The Indianapolis Star reported on similar texts in Indiana.

Wrong date on mailers

Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., sent a campaign mailer with the wrong deadline for absentee ballots. (The mailer said ballots had to be postmarked by Nov. 6, but the state’s actual deadline is Nov. 5.) According to Newsday, it wasn’t the first time the congressman’s campaign had given bad information.

Newsday also reported that Zeldin’s Democratic opponent claimed the mailers targeted likely Democratic voters, such as college students.