When is spam, not spam?
November 7, 2017 12:46 PM   Subscribe

As someone with a Virginia area code on her cell phone, I've been getting a lot of calls and texts from other VA numbers in the last several days reminding me to vote. Ordinarily I'd think they are just typical spam robocalls/robotexts, except...

... they are all addressed to a family member, and all are from the Democratic campaign. The format is generally, "Hi [family member's name]! This is Spammy McSpammerson from VA Democrats! The race is close this year, so please remember to vote Northam for governor on Tuesday!" They come from a variety of VA area codes (probably not the person's actual number, I'm guessing). While I support efforts to get out the vote, I'm curious and a little disturbed as to where they are getting my number attached to my family member's name.

Said family member and I do not share any parts of our names, nor any digits of our cell phone numbers. I asked them if they had signed me up for some sort of mailing list (using their name but my number?), and they denied it. I then asked one of the spammers where they got my number, and they said from the public voter record. However, my publicly available voter record does not include my phone number -- it's an optional section, mine is blank, just verified that.

So my question is twofold:
1. Is there some other public voter record I should be aware of?
2. Does this voter record have information about how a person has voted? I'm suspicious because all these calls/texts have come from D-affiliated groups, when both sides have run a hard campaign (if anything Gillespie et al have been much more aggressive). Might be just a differential campaign strategy, but given that the national voting commission (set up to soothe Breaking Wind's ego that he lost the popular vote) has been demanding voting history makes me wonder if they can see who I voted for in the 2003 primaries long after I've forgotten who was on the ballot. (In other words, it's not paranoia if it's justified.)
posted by basalganglia to Society & Culture (10 answers total)
Are they using the full name of your family member or just the first? If it is only the first, the name may be a coincidence. Ask them what last name they have listed.

I have had a similar experience except in Minnesota (Democrats, too) and the name they are using is not someone in my family. I got the same line about the public voter file. I think these are legit phone numbers since they have all replied when I ask them to stop and remove my number. Your personal registration does not have this number on it - but I suspect that someone else's does. I emailed with my Secretary of State's office and they said they can't change another person's registration.

I don't know about your state' voting records, but most do show which primary you voted in if there are different ones. Last year we had a state primary and a separate presidential primary. No one could know which party I voted in the state primary since it was all on one ballot, but I only went to the Democratic presidential primary and that would be on the record.
posted by soelo at 12:59 PM on November 7, 2017

Have you or the family member ever donated money to the Democratic Party or one of their candidates, or have they bought any political merch? I bought some Obama merch, which was organized through the DNC, so the DNC calls me sometimes. At least I think that's how they got my number. Purchases are technically political contributions, and thus by law you have to give them info like your address and phone number. Voter lists generally do not have phone numbers and I don't think that alone would be enough, so I imagine you or the family member gave them your number somehow, or it was made public in some other way.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:21 PM on November 7, 2017

soelo: It's only the first name, but it's a very unusual name (I've never met anyone else with that name; the callers don't even know how to pronounce it) so I think they do mean my family member. I haven't voted in any primaries since the Republican primary in 2003. I don't know about family member. Good thought to have them check their voting record, though with exactly none of the cell phone digits being the same (apart from the state area code) I doubt it's as simple as mistyping/misreading.

AppleTurnover: I've never donated or bought merchandise from any party, doubt family member has. Even if they had, why would my phone number be attached to that purchase/donation? It's all very strange.
posted by basalganglia at 1:48 PM on November 7, 2017

Political campaigns typically access voter registration records to get the names and contact information of people who are registered to vote. So any information you provided on your voter registration form can be accessed. How you voted is not public information; we have a secret ballot and people cannot look that information up. But it is possible to see which elections you participate in, so sometimes campaigns will target people who don't vote in every single election.

Generally campaigns purchase that information from a vendor who has fancy databases. Those vendors also purchase other data like magazine subscriptions, donation records or other information that they use to come up with an educated guess about whether someone is likely to vote Democratic or Republican. But those are just guesses.

Because voting rolls are maintained on a county by county basis records can be out of date. So your name may be on a voting roll in one state even if you've moved to another one and registered there. It can take a while for your info to get updated. That's why you might still be getting calls from places where you no longer live.
posted by brookeb at 2:24 PM on November 7, 2017

That's why you might still be getting calls from places where you no longer live.
But this isn't a former residence, this is an incorrect name and so is mine.
posted by soelo at 2:27 PM on November 7, 2017

This is likely through one of the proprietary voter files, which will add all sorts of information to the public record, with varying degrees of accuracy. Here is an example of one company that sells this data to parties/campaigns/others, and parties also maintain their own. The information may have come from all sorts of places -- perhaps your relative once answered a call from a Democratic campaign on your phone and gave their name, and so the info got incorrectly entered into a database and then shared around. Or some sort of algorithm incorrectly matched your relative with the phone number based on a purchase or some other random thing.

In terms of vote choice -- your vote itself is secret, no one can know that. But whether you voted in the D vs. R primary is public, so if you consistently vote in D primaries or are registered as a Democrat, that would be public information.
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:29 PM on November 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Just as a data point, I've been getting tons of these texts and they have referred to me as either "Anne" or "Alexander" (not my name, not family members' names). I think rainbowbrite has it - it's a database of phone numbers that isn't particularly accurate.
posted by capricorn at 3:05 PM on November 7, 2017

Keep in mind that some people have terrible penmanship and some person in the county elections office has to read that information and put it into the county database, so it's also possible that a misread and incorrectly entered phone number on the voter rolls is leading to you getting calls or texts intended for someone else.
posted by brookeb at 5:06 PM on November 7, 2017

I suppose this is unlikely, but could your family member have given out your number as their own by accident? I think I have given out my mom's number as mine a couple times, since I call it so much that it is the default number I think of.
posted by ferret branca at 7:03 PM on November 7, 2017

Sometimes data gets associated in weird ways. I get junk mail addressed to my brother-in-law's sister. My sister and brother-in-law live in another state, and his sister lives in a third state, and has never lived in my state.
posted by amarynth at 4:33 AM on November 8, 2017

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