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Mysterious texts discouraging voters befuddle politicos in Harrisburg mayoral race

By: - October 29, 2021 7:15 am

The Harrisburg, Pa., skyline (Image via Flickr Commons)

A mysterious text message campaign claiming to be from a Harrisburg mayoral candidate has sparked last minute confusion in a contentious municipal election.

Numerous Harrisburg residents, including a Capital-Star reporter, have received texts in recent days from an individual who claims to be from Democratic mayoral candidate Wanda Williams’ campaign.

The texter, who often uses a number with an out-of-state area code, asks the recipient if they will vote for Williams. However, according to two examples reviewed by the Capital-Star, if the recipient has a hesitant response, they are told not to vote for her.

“I am pretty sure I am going to vote for Wanda,” a voter told the purportedly pro-Williams canvasser in a text shared to a Harrisburg Facebook group.  “Not 100%.”

“What is there even to think about?” the canvasser replied. “Wanda is going to win anyhow whether you vote for her or not, so do whatever you want.”

Williams, the Democratic nominee, faces a write-in campaign against incumbent Mayor Eric Papenfuse, whom she defeated in the May primary, and Republican Tim Rowbottom.   

Such an exchange is unusual, according to political operatives who reviewed it. 

Typically, the purpose of text banking, door-knocking, and other similar voter engagement, is to identify supporters and to persuade undecided voters, Anne Wakabayashi, a Democratic political consultant, told the Capital-Star. 

“Since most campaigns are trying to get every vote — no matter why a voter might be voting for a candidate — it’s very odd to dissuade a supportive voter from getting out to vote for your candidate,” Wakabayashi added.

Williams, the Harrisburg city council president, beat Papenfuse by just 46 votes in a five-way Democratic primary in May.

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Papenfuse, however, has opted to run a write-in campaign to attempt to hold onto the office for a third term, leading to a rare competitive general election.

In a Facebook post, Williams’ campaign said that many people had reported receiving text messages on behalf of our campaign.

From a reverse number search, the campaign said the texts appeared to originate from Twilio, a California-based communications service.

“This is part of a paid effort to hurt Wanda Williams and her campaign, and we ask our opponents and their supporters to stop immediately,” the statement concluded, although it did not name a culprit.

A review of Williams’ campaign finance reports reveal no expenditures for Twilio, or any other text banking services. The only digital spending is for Wix.com, a website building company.

Papenfuse’s campaign’s filing includes a number of digital expenditures, including $424 for “telephone services” from California-based CallHub.io. 

Its website advertises both phone call and text services. The report lists no spending on Twilio, however, Twilio can be used in conjunction with CallHub.io by using a third app.

In a statement on his campaign Facebook page, Papenfuse said that his campaign does not use Twilio, said it had no idea who sent out the texts, and said to Williams: “Don’t pin your failures on us.”

“Denying any responsibility for these texts (that would only benefit their campaign) seems like an odd move for the Williams campaign, unless they somehow want to shift the blame for people angry at getting unsolicited text messages,” the statement said.

A third candidate, Republican Timothy Rowbottom, is also in the race. His campaign finance report does not show any text-banking expenses.

Independent expenditures on Dauphin County races don’t appear to list any phone banking expenses either, a Capital-Star review found.

If the texts are, as Williams claimed, an effort to harm her campaign, it’s unclear if the perpetrator would face consequences.

Adam Bonin, a Philadelphia-based Democratic elections attorney, said that the texts do raise some legal concerns. It is unlawful, he noted, to lie to people about when, where, or how to vote.

He brought up an effort by Maryland Republicans in 2010 to robocall 112,000 Democratic households starting at 5:55 p.m. on Election Day encouraging voters to “relax,” discouraging turnout amid a contested gubernatorial election. The FBI is investigating a similar effort, by unknown parties, encouraging voters to “stay safe and stay home” on Election Day in 2020.

“Misrepresenting that you represent a particular political campaign, especially if it is done intentionally in order to deceive voters, raises troubling questions of law and potential liability,” Bonin told the Capital-Star.

However, the text messages come days before Election Day, somewhat reducing the stakes. The efforts, Bonin added, could also be a good faith effort by a supporter to help Williams.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is the Capital-Star's House reporter. He previously covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter. You can reach him at 845-891-4306.

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