Like voters around the country, people in California were inundated with political text messages during the midterm election campaign. In October alone, Californians received a whopping 163.9 million of the messages, according to estimates from RoboKiller, an app that blocks robocalls and spam texts.
Many Californians found the electioneering texts annoying, polarizing, occasionally dubious and definitely intrusive. Among those who felt that way was Amber Stoffel, the manager of a community science program in Huntington Beach, who received a barrage of unsolicited texts from local and congressional candidates across the political spectrum.
“Hi Amber, this is Heather, a volunteer with Katie Porter for Congress!” said one message promoting the re-election campaign of Porter, a two-term Democrat.
Another message sent to Stoffel, this time disparaging Porter, came from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican political action committee.
Stoffel told me she was registered without a party preference. “I guess that makes me free game for everybody,” she said of the flood of political text messages. “To be honest, it feels like spam.”
Unlike most other states, California has a law specifically intended to make political texts more transparent and less spamlike. The state has long been a pioneer in U.S. tech regulation. Yet, as Stoffel’s experience suggests, the narrow rules may have limited effectiveness.
I’m a tech reporter at The New York Times and I starting looking into the boom in political texting this fall. I wanted to learn more about the campaign messages, partly because, unlike political ads on broadcast TV or radio, texting uses a private channel that is not subject to public scrutiny.
Another big difference: Unlike broadcast TV and radio ads, mass campaign texts do not have to adhere to federal rules requiring political ads to say who paid for them.
To help with the reporting, more than 960 readers, including more than 100 in California, answered questions from The Times about their experiences. People also sent in more than 1,000 images of the political texts they received.
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In 2019, California became the first state to pass a measure requiring a “paid for by” disclosure in mass political texting. Called the Text Message Disclose Act, the law requires candidates, party committees and independent expenditure groups sending bulk text messages that support or oppose a political candidate or a ballot measure to state who paid for them.
Given California’s rules, I was curious to see whether electioneering texts sent to Californians provided more details about their sponsors than similar messages sent to voters in other states. Examples sent in by readers suggest that at least some do.
One text assailing Proposition 30, a state ballot measure that would have increased taxes to help promote electric vehicles, for instance, clearly stated that it was paid for by “No on 30,” a ballot committee. It also noted that the group’s “top funders” included Reed Hastings, the chief executive of Netflix.
Some messages promoting local California candidates were also transparent, but others lacked the required disclosures. Candidates or groups that fail to disclose who paid for political texting campaigns may receive warning letters or face fines from California’s Fair Political Practices Commission.
Even so, it can be difficult to figure out who is behind a political text message. The state’s transparency rules apply only to California candidates and ballot measure committees, not to congressional races.
Take that text from “a volunteer with Katie Porter for Congress.” To check who paid for the message, I emailed Porter’s campaign last week.
The next day, I received a call not from Porter’s campaign, but from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Neither the campaign nor the committee responded to questions about who sponsored the Porter text.
In California, federal campaigns don’t have to play by local political transparency rules.
Natasha Singer is a technology reporter for The Times who covers consumer privacy.
Where we’re traveling
Today’s tip comes from Suzanne Tucker, who recommends hiking in Sonoma County:
“At Tolay Lake Regional Park, in the hills southeast of Petaluma, there is a wonderful hike that takes you along overlooks of the Petaluma River and then onto an overlook back to San Francisco Bay and the San Francisco skyline.
Another fabulous place to hike is in Helen Putnam Regional Park, which although in the city of Petaluma, is an oasis of bucolic farmland and rolling hills.”
Tell us about your favorite places to visit in California. Email your suggestions to CAtoday@nytimes.com. We’ll be sharing more in upcoming editions of the newsletter.
We’re writing about how Californians celebrate Thanksgiving. Do you make stuffing with sourdough, or opt for roasted brussels sprouts instead of green bean casserole? Maybe you always travel to a special spot within the Golden State.
Email us at CAtoday@nytimes.com with your California Thanksgiving traditions and memories. Please include your name and the city where you live.
We may include your email response in an upcoming newsletter or in print. By emailing us a response, you agree that you have read, understand and accept the Reader Submission Terms in relation to all of the content and other information you send to us (“Your Content”). If you do not accept these terms, do not submit any content.
And before you go, some good news
When Joseph Chahayed immigrated from Syria to Los Angeles, he envisioned a better life and a brighter future for his family.
For 42 years he worked tirelessly toward that dream, and, last week, he finally received some well-earned recognition when the Altadena gas station he owns was awarded a $1 million prize for selling the winning $2 billion Powerball ticket. Under California’s Powerball rules, the retailer that sells the winning ticket earns 0.5 percent share of the jackpot, with the reward capped at $1 million.
“He’s a really hard-working man,” his son, Danny Chahayed, told The Los Angeles Times. “Seventy-five years old and he refuses to take a day off; he’s up at like 5 a.m. every day. No one deserves it as much as he does.”
The newspaper reported that the elder Chahayed plans to share the lottery money with his family and grandchildren, who continue to provide him the motivation and support to keep working and building community.
Thanks for reading. I’ll be back tomorrow. — Soumya
P.S. Here’s today’s Mini Crossword.
Briana Scalia and Isabella Grullón Paz contributed to California Today. You can reach the team at CAtoday@nytimes.com.
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