TAKING ACTION: Behind the voter registration text message campaigns

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- The deadline to register for the December 12 U.S Senate Special Election is November 27, at 11:59 p.m. online.  Some viewers reached out to WHNT News 19 about text messages they have received saying they were potentially unregistered to vote. When those viewers checked their status, they found they were still registered, causing some confusion.

Secretary of State John Merrill released a statement on Monday saying there were "erroneous" text messages circulating claiming that the recipients of said messages are unregistered voters, when in fact they are registered. But the organizations behind the text message campaigns want to clear the air.

Open Progress is a non-profit whose mission is to restore the voices and the votes of Americans. They were named in Merrill's statement. Co-founder Elizabeth Haynes said they launched their non-partisan text message campaign in response to Merrill's postcard campaign from back in August.

"If you didn't receive that postcard, if your family member threw it in the trash and didn't know how important it was, then you may be marked inactive. That includes voters in Alabama who have been voting for years and years," she explained.

Haynes said they get their information from public voter files, and the response has been largely positive. "We've had people say to us, I'm so glad that you've reached out to me on text message because I wouldn't have picked up my phone."

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Forward Alabama is behind another similar campaign that launched on Sunday, one day before the registration deadline. Their non-partisan campaign targeted an estimated 87,000 women who might not be registered to vote.

"It's not a scam, it's not anything people should be afraid of. In fact, if they respond to that, they'll give them the link to be able to go online and register to vote at the Secretary of State's website," said Cindi Branham, Forward Alabama Co-Chair.

She said all databases have flaws, so for those who received the text but are in fact registered, it was not intentional.  "There was no malice intended here, the whole thing was to get people out to vote," Branham explained.

In response to Merrill's statement, Branham went on to say, "This is just honest get out the vote, trying to get people to vote, trying to get people to exercise their rights as American citizens. I'd like to have more information on what his office saw so we could assess that."

For his part, Merrill said his office received four different complaints over the weekend alerting him to the text messages.

"They didn't know how these people got their cell phone numbers, they didn't know how these people were able to contact them, they didn't know why they would contact them, and so it really concerned them," he explained.

In response, Open Progress's Haynes said, "Our program, from the very beginning, is based on self-reported information. We open with a question, are you registered to vote?  And then we take it from there."

To the campaigns, Merrill wants to thank the organizations for their interest in Alabama politics and encouraging people to vote.

"Thank you for utilizing an up to date communication tool to contact people, but please make sure that you let us know when you're trying to work with us, so we can help you accomplish your goal more efficiently and more effectively," he said.

Open Progress started their campaign a little more than a week and a half ago. In that time, they have reached out to more than 120,000 Alabamians, and have helped register more than 550 people so far.

The Alabama chapter of the NAACP, another organization named in Merrill's statement, released a statement apologizing for any confusion, but standing by its voter registration effort, reading in part,  "The messages sent out from the NAACP are not erroneous, it is simply a reminder to voters to make sure they are registered to vote in this upcoming election so that they will not be turned away at the polls."

You can check your registration status here, and register until midnight here.


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