Got a Robocall or Text Saying Your Polling Place Moved? Better Double-Check.
Voters have also received messages alleging widespread voter fraud and falsely claiming that candidates have quit their races
There's less than a week left to vote, which means Americans’ phones are chiming with political messages: texted fundraising pitches, volunteer recruitment calls, recorded pleas (also known as robocalls) to vote for one candidate and not the other. But in the past few months, some voters in Detroit, New York City, Philadelphia, and other major cities received a political robocall unlike the rest.
In it, the caller identifies herself as Tamika Taylor and says she’s working with a civil rights organization called Project 1599. She then makes some astounding—and false—claims about mail-in voting: It can land voters’ personal information in a “public database” that police use to hunt down old warrants, and that credit card companies scour for debtors, she says. Plus, the government could use the database to impose mandatory vaccinations, she says.
“Don't be finessed into giving your private information to the man,” by voting by mail, the caller warns.
A lawsuit filed in mid-October on behalf of voters who received the message says that the calls, which were targeted at majority-Black communities, were designed to intimidate Black voters. On Oct. 28, a judge imposed a temporary restraining order (PDF) on the callers—and ordered them to call the recipients back to correct the record. The suit estimates that the messages reached about 85,000 people. (You can hear the call as recorded by Nomorobo, a company that helps people block robocalls and texts. Consumer Reports has suggested Nomorobo as a resource for consumers.)
A call from a California House campaign says that a prominent Democratic leader has "spent tens of millions of dollars to harvest Democrat votes and steal this election,” without evidence of wrongdoing. It was delivered about a million times, Nomorobo estimates. And another call, this one from the Florida Family Policy Council, a conservative political organization, alleges falsely that “every year, thousands of absentee ballots are tampered with.” That one went out about 4.3 million times, by Nomorobo’s estimate. John Stemberger, who runs that organization and who narrated the call, tells CR his claims are “fair and reasonable.” (The other two organizations did not respond to requests for comment.)
CR shared these recordings with several misinformation experts. “We know that election fraud is almost nonexistent,” says David Brody, who leads the Digital Justice Initiative at the nonpartisan Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the organizations representing voters in the Project 1599 lawsuit. “These narratives about it are false, and they are designed to undermine confidence in the election and the integrity of the election.”
Defending yourself against these calls and texts requires a critical eye. You can read below about how to spot misinformation, and how to get help from your mobile carrier or third-party companies in blocking unwanted messages (or use this advice to combat misinformation).
Robocall Protections Falling Short
False or misleading messages about the election can fall through the cracks of laws and regulations aimed at protecting voters, and at shielding consumers from unwanted calls and texts.
Federal law prohibits voter intimidation, coercion, and threats—but says nothing on the use of deception, according to Brody.
And rules meant to curb the volume of robocalls and texts haven’t done much to combat misinformation, says Consumer Reports policy analyst Maureen Mahoney, who has helped lead the organization's sustained advocacy for strong consumer protections from robocalls.
Last year, major phone carriers entered an agreement with state attorneys general to step up spam-call blocking and beef up protections against fake caller IDs—requirements that also appear in the TRACED Act, a measure supported by Consumer Reports that President Trump signed last December. However, those changes aren’t fully implemented yet, Mahoney says. And they’re largely targeted at illegal telemarketing, not political misinformation.
Cell phone providers are working to block spam calls and unwanted messages with filtering software that uses blocklists, call volume and duration, and other patterns to weed out unsolicited texts and calls, according to CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association, and cellular providers contacted by Consumer Reports. They encourage customers to forward spam texts to 7726 (SPAM), which helps them improve their filters.
Although the FCC requires that “nearly all robocalls and texts to cell phones receive your prior permission," Mahoney says, political campaigns have found workarounds, including enlisting volunteers to repeatedly hit Send on prewritten text messages, skirting laws meant to curb mass texting.
Political robocalls to landlines don't require your consent.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
Some misleading messages go beyond casting doubt on the electoral process and are aimed directly at derailing voters who want to cast a ballot.
In one example from the spring, robocalls in English and Spanish gave Texas voters the wrong date for the Democratic primary.
Then, in October, a text message in Oklahoma falsely claimed that a polling place had been moved. Election officials in the state “will never contact you by text message to tell you your polling place has changed,” Paul Ziriax, the election board secretary, warned voters in a press release. (Some state and local ballot-tracking tools do allow voters to sign up for updates about their mail-in ballots via text, phone call, or email.)
Sometimes, it’s unclear where misleading or malicious calls and texts come from. Numbers that show up on recipients’ caller ID can be faked, and responses or callbacks typically go nowhere. That’s one of the challenges that sets texts and calls apart from misinformation posted on social media sites, which can often be traced back to a source. On Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube, many people can see and flag false information for the company to take down—but there’s nothing standing between you and misleading claims that land directly in your text inbox or voicemail.
“This is definitely an important threat,” says Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, where he tracks election misinformation. “The main reason to worry about it is that we don’t know how much of this is going on.”
First, be skeptical of outrageous claims. “There’s a visceral nature to how [a call or a text] invades your life,” says Brody, the Lawyers’ Committee attorney. “If you see something or are told something that immediately causes your blood to boil and seems outrageous, or causes you to want to say, ‘Oh my goodness, I have to tell people about this right now or I have to act right now,’” Brody says, it’s wise to double-check with several news sources to see whether the message is accurate.
It's important not to put blind trust in a text, phone call, or email that provides information on where or how to vote. You can check the website of your local election office, or give that office a call. Find links to your state and local election sites at Vote.org.
If you do receive a scammy call or text, whether it has to do with voting or anything else, you can report it to the FCC and your state attorney general’s office. And if it contains election misinformation or seems to be meant to intimidate voters, report it to 866-OUR-VOTE (866-687-8683), a nonpartisan election protection hotline.
If it's just a text from a campaign you don't want to hear from anymore, try replying "STOP." Senders are supposed to honor the request, but some seedier ones don't.
To reduce the number of robocalls and texts you receive, sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry, and check with your mobile carrier to see what kind of tools they have in place to screen robocalls and texts. (Consumer Reports has lots of information on how to protect yourself from robocalls.)
Major cellular providers have services that alert you when an incoming call may be from a telemarketer, and detect and block calls from probable scammers. Several companies—including Nomorobo and RoboKiller—offer extra protections against unwanted calls and texts for a few dollars a month. (Nomorobo is free for landlines.) Some apps, including Hiya, YouMail, Mr. Number, RoboKiller, and Truecaller, offer robocall-blocking services free but may ask you for sensitive personal information, such as your contact list.