Political mailings criticized as spam

Political consultant Robert Barnes is mass-emailing campaign literature in a tactic he calls "revolutionary." Others call it foolish.

5 min read
Last year San Francisco political consultant Robert Barnes sent out mass email as a test. Now he's ready to go full bore with his "experiment," which he calls "revolutionary."

Others describe his idea differently, calling it foolish and even warning that he is wading in some dangerous waters. They say Barnes may alienate more voters than he attracts with a mass emailing that most people will think of as "spam," the dirtiest word on the Internet these days.

That, in turn, could backfire for the candidates he promotes, such as Jane Harmon, a Democratic candidate running for California governor.

"I'm confused and wonder why a politician who's trying to win the hearts and minds of the electorate thinks it's a good idea to use a contact method that's going to annoy a vast majority of recipients," said John Mozena, cofounder of antispam group the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email, or CAUCE. "I was surprised that anybody would be that clueless."

The sentiment seemed to resonate with at least some parts of the voting public. One person this week wrote in a newsgroup that the move is at least influencing his ballot.

"Sent a note to one of the candidates letting her know that though I had STRONGLY considered voting for her in the upcoming primary, she now gets no further consideration (and she's in a VERY close race) just because of her ASSOCIATION with those cretins," wrote this indignant Netizen.

Harmon's assistant press secretary referred inquiries about the matter to Barnes.

Barnes, who runs the Democratic political organization Informed Voter, says he isn't clueless at all; he's just trying to leverage one of the most powerful mass media available today to reach voters who would want to be contacted.

In fact, he isn't the only one who wants to unleash the power of email: It is a widely accepted truism that mainstream advertisers are champing at the bit hoping to find a way to reach mass numbers themselves. Email is the most direct way to reach a person--and, in advertising lore, the more directly an ad can be targeted, the more likely it is to work.

But with few exceptions, mainstream advertisers have avoided junk email, fearing a backlash from Netizens. And those who have given in to temptation--even just trying it out with email that only some would define as true spam--have been burned by the experience.

Mozena said Barnes should take heed.

With email, he said, "the cost of the communication is shifted onto the recipient whether it's a personal email or political email. While email is a wonderful tool for keeping in touch with people who are already your supporters, using it as a contact method is just going to make a lot of people really angry."

Informed Voter has purchased email lists and otherwise gathered names from those who have made their email addresses public, Barnes said. Last November when Barnes and his organization sent out the singular mailing, they did take names from newsgroups, although they didn't "harvest" them blindly, he said.

Some Netizens criticized last year's emailing, calling it spam, pure and simple.

But as he argued last year, Barnes said his group is trying to be careful about the recipient lists. He defended the ones that he uses, saying the email addresses were all legitimately public.

"These are what we call public email addresses," Barnes said. "If you handed me your business card and on it was your email address, you are giving that out to the public. I'm collecting lists from established organizations. The main thrust is we're going to try to increase the participation in the election and Democratic [candidates]."

Barnes said he's open to feedback and said the program "is still being developed." Already, his Web site advertises a full program: "Direct email, targetable by county and state. Constituency email, targetable by demographics or create and maintain your own database," it states.

Barnes calls the current emailing, reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, "revolutionary" and claimed that the move was "unprecedented."

During the last presidential campaign, however, Republican candidate Bob Dole used email to contact voters. Even with an "opt-in" list that asked Net users to sign up for the email messages, he was accused of sending spam because some people signed up their "friends" for the email.

During that 1996 campaign, political consultants said that by 2000, not only email, but the entire Internet would play a major role in elections. But the way it would happen was unclear then and remains so today.

Barnes, insisting that "we want to do things right," defended his right to send mass email as falling under the First Amendment. "What about the issue of political free speech?" he asked rhetorically. "What about ability to use the Web to register people to vote?"

He likened email to political mailings that are the bread and butter of politicians and consultants such as himself.

Mozena and other antispam activists point out that there is one major difference: In snail mail carried through the U.S. Postal Service the sender pays for postage. With email, the recipients and their Internet service providers in effect absorb the cost. And that, they say, makes all the difference.

Barnes counters that he's simply using it to promote democracy (and Democrats): "Is it a bad thing for us to be promoting voter registration, absentee ballots, and get-out-the-voter polling locations on the Web? We're not trying to sell anything. We're not trying to get you to purchase a product. We want to ask you one time are you registered to vote.

"We want to do it right," he added. "How will we know the impact unless we do it?"

Last time, he said, "Most of the people who asked to be taken off the mailing lists also were appreciative of the work we were doing. Frankly, what we are doing is pro-democracy."

Clearly, not everyone is so thankful for his sense of civic responsibility.

"I paid for this message against my will, as did everyone else who received it," one recipient of the November emailing wrote in a newsgroup. "This seems to me to be a matter of illegal campaigning, since each of us who received this junk email have been coerced into making an unreported contribution."