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Unsubscribe! The tyranny of political fundraising emails

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Several years ago, I was traveling in a van from Capitol Hill to a tour of the Gettysburg National Military Park, when the gentleman sitting behind me poked my shoulder. At the time, I chaired the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and he wanted me to know that since we departed Washington, he’d received three emails in my name soliciting money for various candidates.  

I thought about the incident last Saturday while leading a tour of Gettysburg on behalf of Cornell University. In a five-hour period, from Devil’s Den to Little Round Top, from the Wheat field to the Peach Orchard, I received 13 urgent pleas to donate.

In fact, over the weekend, my inbox piled up with scores of requests from candidates for governor, the House, the Senate, several state legislatures, some city councils and a county commission. They came from South Carolina, Georgia, California, Long Island, Florida, Virginia, Manhattan, Illinois and more.

I am on a first name basis with people I have never met, including Holly, Dilina, Rob and Laura. Complete strangers apparently crave my opinion on whether Joe Biden is doing a good job (yes) and whether Donald Trump should run again (God, no).

I have learned that my $5 donation can “STOP TED CRUZ” or give various candidates the “MOMENTUM WE NEED!!!!!” I have also been queried on whether I am “as sick and tired of Marjorie as we are…” (I am). 

Somehow – don’t ask me how – Donald Trump himself has found my text number and asked for my thoughts on several issues including the socialist hordes rampaging across America. (Note to Trump’s digital finance team: You’re kind of wasting your time on me, though I am always flattered to be asked my opinions by a guy who took gobs of government benefits for his private sector enterprises but insists that paving a public highway is socialism.) 

I’ve tried to unsubscribe. Repeatedly. But somehow, the requests for $3, $5, $7 keep finding me. It’s as if the act of unsubscribing triggers an alert to every candidate who hasn’t yet discovered my email address. I can hear them with the soft ping on my iPhone: “You may have spurned my campaign, but there are more of us out there. Thousands of us. Resistance is futile. Click here.”

Isn’t democracy in enough trouble without reducing it to a speed date? I’m not political click bait. I like to be courted before any type of fromance (fundraising romance) begins. Woo me with a discussion on campaign viability over an awkward zoom. Seduce me with a briefing on your latest polls while your finance assistant is desperately yanking the cellphone from your ear to connect with another donor.  

Also, why is a digital break up so hard to do? You have to hunt for that obscure pin-prick of a message to “unsubscribe here”; carefully navigate the digital barriers and detours that make the process seem hopeless; make sure you want to actually unsubscribe rather then receive fewer emails; attest, as if in a divorce agreement, why you are terminating; administer that final gut check that you are sure you want to unsubscribe.

At that point, shouldn’t unsubscribe mean well, unsubscribe rather than undersubscribe, partially subscribe, lightly subscribe, change the nature of the subscription or take a little break from subscribing? 

Even worse is that broken unsubscribe link. It mocks you like a practical joke, reminding you of your impotence in the defense of your inbox. 

The CAN-SPAM law, under the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission, applies to commercial transactions. For political solicitations, we have to rely on the standards of the sender. And for as long as the sender rakes in gobs of on-line money, they’re not going out of their way to lose you. When they say “Sorry to See You Go,” they often mean “See You Later.” 

In a Los Angeles Times piece about online political solicitations, Tufts University professor Eitan Hersh boiled it down to this: “democracy can be annoying.” That’s why I’m proposing the “Make Democracy Less Annoying Act of 2021.” It would require a prominent option to unsubscribe at the top of each email; and reduce the number of steps required to terminate the relationship.    

If you agree with my fight to STOP the UNSUBSCRIBE SCAM, pitch-in right now. To send $3, click here. If you can afford $5, click here. To unsubscribe from further messages, don’t bother.  

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. Follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags CAN-SPAM Act Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Donald Trump Email Joe Biden Political fundraising Spamming Steve Israel Ted Cruz

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