Last week a Detour reader raised alarm bells after receiving an unsolicited text about voting from civil rights organization the NAACP. Political texts are increasingly common, and nearly 3 billion were sent to Americans in September. But this one was strange: it contained the names and phone numbers of 10 local voters with a request for the recipient, Detroit resident James Herriotte, to contact them about voting.
Herriotte wondered what the deal was — was the NAACP the actual sender, or was it some sort of scam? “I was worried about the list [of strangers’ numbers] because it was personal information and it was unsolicited,” he told Detour.
It turns out, texts like these are part of the NAACP’s “Black Voices Change Lives” program, NAACP Vice President of Civic Engagement Jamal Watkins told Detour. The program launched in August to promote Black voter turnout in battleground states like Michigan. With robust “no-contact canvassing” and a multi-million dollar advertisement campaign, Black Voices Changes Lives aims to increase Black voter turnout by 5% nationwide.
“We’ve seen, for the first time in 20 years, a downturn in Black voter participation. We know we can’t afford to have a light turnout in 2020,” NAACP President Derrick Johnson told Click on Detroit when the program launched. “We are encouraging people from across the country, particularly in the Detroit metro area, to vote. Our lives depend on it.”
With voter motivation in Michigan reaching new highs, it’s a message many can get behind. But for Herriotte, the details in these texts felt invasive.
Black Voices Change Lives has a volunteer sign-up option on their website for those who wish to opt in, and Herriotte did receive a text requesting that he volunteer with the program in September. But he never responded to the text, and he wasn’t expecting to be assigned voters to contact.
“They sent me the personal information of strangers with no type of vetting,” he said. “Were they doing the same with my info? Is that how I was contacted? That was unsettling.”
A spokesperson for the Michigan attorney general did not immediately respond to Detour’s questions about the legal implications of sharing voters’ names and phone numbers.
As a nonprofit organization, the NAACP is exempt from certain telemarketing rules and has more leeway to send unsolicited texts, emails and calls. Ultra-targeted information is all part of this year’s strategy: “We decided to look at states where there was a large population of Black voters who voted infrequently,” Watkins said in September. The organization identified high-frequency Black voters and recruited them as volunteers to contact low-frequency Black voters, who “need someone to encourage them, talk to them, speak to them,” Watkins explained.
Information like whether or not you voted in past elections is public record, and political campaigns and other groups can use voter files to analyze and target different groups of voters.
Despite his initial worry, Herriotte says he understands the importance of voter turnout, especially this year. He calls the Black Voices Change Lives program “innovative,” but believes it could be better executed to avoid looking suspicious. “It’s imperative, especially in this election, that as many people vote as possible. But there should have been more thought.”
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More Detroit elections coverage from Detour:
–Everything to know about early voting in Detroit
–Here are all of Detroit’s ballot drop boxes and satellite voting centers
–How accessible is voting in Detroit?
–Does Detroit have enough poll workers?