(KUTV) - We hear complaints every election season of annoying and harassing campaigning. Voters lament that unwanted calls and text messages bombard their phones and that unwanted yard signs and flyers litter neighborhoods.
This week, the Get Gephardt hotline has logged similar complaints as the race for Orrin Hatch’s soon-to-be-vacated senate seat heats up. Challengers Mike Kennedy and Mitt Romney have been vying for the republican nomination.
One of the ways Romney has been getting-out-the-vote this week is by buying advertisements on the side of plastic bags stuffed with newspaper-like advertisements. The stuffed bags, which read, “Romney for Utah,” are then hurled onto people's lawns and driveways.
Issah Romero sent Get Gephardt a video showing dozens of the bags strewn about his Herriman neighborhood. On the video, Romero narrates, "Hey Romney Utah. Can you send somebody to come pick up all this debris and trash that you left in our neighborhood?"
To the east, Sandy City Councilmember Zach Robinson tells Get Gephardt that he has received complaints from Sandy City residents about the bags, one caller asking if any laws are being broken. Robinson says he will ask the city to investigate if any campaign ordinances were violated.
Romney for Utah’s communications director was quick to point out that the stuffed bags did not actually come from the campaign. In an email, MJ Henshaw wrote, “We took advantage of an opportunity offered by the Salt Lake Trib, Des News, and Daily Herald to advertise on their product. Delivery practices for those companies are out of our hands.”
Meanwhile, Kennedy is sending text messages to voters. John Kinnear of Sandy City got one late last night at 10:35 PM after he had gone to bed for the night.
"I'm annoyed when people I know send me text messages at 10:35 at night,” he said. “This isn't a campaign I’ve been involved with. I never gave permission to send a text."
By phone, Kennedy for Utah’s spokesperson Cindie Quintana said that the texts Kinnear and other voters received were all sent before 8PM but were, in some cases, delayed due to an issue with the cell phone network. She also apologized.
Accompanying some of the annoyance-complaints into the 2News newsroom is the question about whether or not certain campaign tactics are on the up-and-up. For example, Romero calls the plastic bags, “littering.” Littering is a clear violation of Herriman City code. And Robinson says a constituent who called him conveyed that the bags were tantamount to putting a campaign sign in his yard without his permission, which would violate city code. Kinnear, who works in marketing, wonders if the late text he received may violate FCC telecom rules.
Investigating, Get Gephardt found a slew of federal and local laws that put limits on what campaigns are allowed to do as well as reports of campaigns pushing those boundaries.
Many cities have codes against putting up signs on public property or on the private property of someone who didn't ask for it, and, of course, against littering. But there is no law we could find against buying advertising from a newspaper company, and then the newspaper company throwing its product onto people's property with the campaign’s ad boldly printed for all to see. In fact, in some cities and states, a special exception has been carved out which allows for the newspaper industry’s famous toss-in-the-yard delivery method. The delivery method has also withstood court challenges. In 1998, an Illinois law attempted to stifle the delivery method but the law was struck down by the state’s supreme court. The argument is that litter, by definition, is something that is discarded. Newspapers, or newspaper-like-ads, aren’t being discarded – they are being delivered.
Likewise, the Telephone Consumer Protection Act forbids using an auto-dialer to send text messages to someone who didn't consent to getting them. But we could find no law against a campaign volunteer picking up a phone and manually texting people, consent or not. Quintana says that texts sent from the Kennedy for Utah campaign come from volunteers using their own personal cell phones.
Aggressive campaigning is nothing new. In 2016, the FCC put out a warning to campaigns for office that it would “vigorously enforce” all the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.