Florida cracking down on anonymous political text messages

Florida cracking down on anonymous political text messages

GAINESVILLE — Ever receive one of those irritating political texts during election season — praising or criticizing a candidate — and wonder who was behind it?

The Florida Election Commission is cracking down on political texts that don’t explicitly state who paid for them, with new rules intended to improve transparency for voters and stem the spread of misinformation.

Under the proposed new regulations, groups that break the new rules will be fined $200 to $250 for each text — amounts that could add up to tens of thousands of dollars for wayward texts blasted during a campaign.

Even for honest campaigns, one consultant estimated, complying with the new rules could double costs by adding characters to texts with limited lengths. The election commission disputed that estimate.

Comments from the public on the new rules will be accepted through Thursday of next week. The commission determined it had the authority to change the policy without asking for approval from the Legislature.

Political texting has evolved over the past decade to flood potential voters with messages that in some cases they never signed up to receive. The practice has become morewidespread for campaigns during the pandemic, as they rely less on packed rallies and volunteers conducting face-to-face visits to potential voters’ homes.

Technology allows campaigns to send thousands of personalized messages at a time through apps and programs, such as peer-to-peer texting, making it appear the texts come from individual phones. Federal rules already prohibit campaigns from using auto-dialing technology.

In the worst cases, underhanded political texts sent by mysterious groups spread lies and rumors about candidates. Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., was targeted during the 2020 congressional election in southwest Florida by texts sent to voters falsely saying he had dropped out of the race. The texts didn’t say who paid to send them.

The new rules set fines for candidates at $250 per text for spending money on texts or phone calls that do not indicate who paid for them. They would fine others — such as supporters, elected officials or organizations working on behalf of candidates or campaigns — $200 per text for such violations.

The new rules call for clarity on who is behind political texts but will increase costs to campaigns, said Ben Torpey, a political consultant at Ozean Media Inc. of Alachua in north-central Florida.

The group’s clients in the last election spent at least $346,194 on these services and included the Citizens for Energy Choices political committee and Republican State Attorney John F. Durrett of Lake City and Rep. Clay Yarborough, R-Jacksonville.

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Torpey said the average cost to campaigns for texts can average between 10 to 25 cents per message. Because of limits on the size of the political message, Torpey said requiring disclosures about who paid for the message could double those costs.

“I do think this hurts underfunded campaigns,” he said. “But it has no effect on well-funded campaigns.”

The commission said the new rules would not cost businesses anything extra.

“The rule will not increase any fees, business costs, personnel costs, will not decrease profit opportunities, and will not require any specialized knowledge to comply,” it said.

Related: Column: I'm a political text message and I'm here to destroy you

It was not made clear exactly when the new rules will take effect, but they likely would be in place by this November’s elections.

Ozean Media has sent hundreds of thousands of texts in local and statewide campaigns. Torpey said texting is effective because it allows campaigners to reach voters directly on their phones — which they carry with them at all times — and get immediate responses.

“It’s a great way to hit voters right before Election Day or on Election Day to get the vote out,” he said.

Steven Vancore, president of VancoreJones Communications Inc. of Tallahassee, is less convinced that political texts can drive voter behavior. He said recipients rarely take them seriously.

Vancore’s clients spent at least $1.7 million with his firm during the last election and included the All Voters Vote and Committee for a Stronger Broward political committees; Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton; and Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton.

Vancore said the new rules probably won’t affect those who send devious texts with lies and misinformation about candidates and campaigns since groups behind those would continue to work illegally and remain anonymous.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at cilvento@freshtakeflorida.com