This is something the DNC could fix today
Before I jump into this essay, it seems appropriate to define “deadname” for those uninitiated. The word “deadname” typically refers to a trans person’s birth name. You may wonder why such a dramatic term is necessary, but “you just birth-named me” doesn’t correctly stress the offense and impact of being deadnamed for a trans person. I tend to refer to my birth name as just that — my birth name. That said, when someone else uses my birth name, it becomes my deadname. Birth name is my choice, my decision to disclose. Deadname is when my birth name gets shoved in my face without consent.
To get to the point of this essay, I have been deadnamed by every progressive political campaign that has texted, emailed, or direct mailed me. This is not surprising in the least, as my voter file still contains my deadname, so while a bit perturbed, I have generally been understanding when receiving “personalized” political texts and other such correspondence.
So why does this matter?
Even though I’m reasonably understanding, being deadnamed fucking sucks. It always kind of knocks the wind out of me, and there’s something about it that makes me feel stripped naked. It’s the most uncomfortable place that a conversation could be initiated from for me, having to correct the deadname and immediately out myself as trans to maintain dignity.
When a volunteer text-banker deadnames me, the only thing there is to do is explain that I am trans and that being deadnamed is jarring. Some volunteers have been great, and I’ve gone on to have some wonderful conversations after that initially awkward start. Therein lies the beauty of peer-to-peer texting.
On the other hand, several of the volunteers I’ve texted with have been entirely unprepared to handle the situation they find themselves in, which adds insult to injury. These conversations are never super negative, to be precise. Still, you can detect an untrained volunteer when you complain about being deadnamed, and the conversation goes silent.
When volunteers encounter an upset trans person, most campaigns issue an apology and a link for the person to update their name with that individual campaign. Unfortunately, updating your name with these forms does not equate to an instant fix, as illustrated in these exchanges that a trans friend of mine named Daniel had with separate Bernie volunteers:
What this shows is that voter information is not being pushed to and pulled from dynamic databases — it’s being pulled from purchased information mashed together from sources like Amazon with your voter file by companies like TargetSmart. TargetSmart and others like i360 boast having information on over 200 million consumers in over 170,000 voter precincts. Of that, over 90% are registered voters.
I can see that many campaigns are prepared and trying to do their best with information that is sloppy and disjointed, and though I do appreciate that, it’s just not enough. It’s also not like I can vote for a candidate who doesn’t deadname trans people because they *all* do this. This problem is systemic, and while the best replies I’ve seen have come from Warren and Sanders’ volunteers, this is a situation that could, at the very least, be minimized with a common database for people to update their information.
I personally absolutely do want to receive political texts. I tend to sequester myself from the news for my mental health, and I do want to learn more about candidates I’ve not considered. In fact, I find peer-to-peer texting more engaging than any other form of canvassing, but leading with my deadname is a nonstarter.
What is “peer-to-peer texting” anyway?
Peer-to-peer texting, often abbreviated to p2p, is a method of political canvassing using software that allows volunteers to personalize thousands of conversations with potential voters. This somewhat novel method of outreach is very much about casting a wide net. Volunteers have software that loads up to 5,000 numbers per person. The volunteer then literally hits the button 5,000 times. Because they are doing that and can modify the message on their device, it’s considered a one to one interaction, which is why these texts are not regulated the same way as blast communications or spam.
When you use a ton of numbers this way, you get a pretty large percentage of wrong numbers and wrong names (also lots of dead people), but campaigns do it out of the need to ID voters and have to deal with the fallout.
Where peer to peer is super useful is when you start to lock in on a universe of people who really do want to be texted by your campaign. Then a campaigner can keep hundreds of meaningful text conversations going with other potential volunteers, and they can do it from a number that isn’t their phone.
All of this is totally legal, by the way. According to the Federal Trade Commission, non-commercial messages like political surveys and fundraising are exempt from spam laws. Furthermore, when information is purchased from voter data farms, that voter data is often given directly to volunteers who are not paid by the campaign. It doesn’t take much to text for a political campaign. For instance, to text for Bernie, you need only attend a one hour webinar, and you will be granted the keys to text thousands of active voters.
I don’t mean to shit on political volunteers or anything; my point is just that these folks are not well trained on how to deal with this situation, which is made abundantly evident by the exchange I had with a volunteer for Tom Steyer, pictured below.
You can see why these methods are otherwise hugely effective. Peer to peer texting works, and a certain number of people are bound to be upset with it for one reason or another. Whether it’s because the personalization is regarded as creepy, or because the voter record is a deadname, or the voter is insulted to be texted by a campaign for a candidate they don’t like, pleasing everyone isn’t possible. I know this intellectually and professionally. It makes strictly logical sense that the small percentage who hate it enough to complain would hardly weigh against the “greater good.” It’s a numbers game, and in the eyes of political campaigns, angry trans people don’t trump effective marketing.
I understand this mentality in the sense that I’ve worked in marketing, and I get how these decisions are made. I certainly don’t like it, however, and think that using legal first names for peer to peer messaging is irresponsible at best. I find the practice of tossing trans people under the bus for the greater good hugely insulting on top of that, and while the volunteer from Steyer’s campaign was refreshingly honest, that level of truth would get a paid staffer fired. I firmly believe that’s a part of why volunteers are used for these tasks — plausible deniability. A volunteer can be acting outside of a campaign’s goals and values, but a staffer is the one who comes in to fix it, as was in the case of Daniel’s exchange with Ed from Bernie’s campaign.
You can see why a political campaign would want to use a third-party source like TargetSmart for information like this. It’s not really Sanders or Warren or Biden or any other campaign’s fault if voter-farm sites end up going full Cambridge-Analytica on us after the election is over. I don’t expect that to happen, mind you, as there is bipartisan support for using voter records this way. While California democratic governor Dianne Feinstein introduced the Voter Privacy Act in July 2019, such acts related to voter rights seem to rarely make it beyond the introductory stage once referred to the Senate Rules and Administration Commission. I would be gobsmacked if the Voter Privacy Act were to even make it to the Senate floor for a vote with the Republican majority we have now.
As my career is in marketing, I see this whole thing less as an affront on trans people and more as a quality assurance issue. The technology is so young that this is the first time we’ve seen it deployed to such a massive extent in a presidential election year. It seems prudent to give the campaigns the benefit of the doubt and the opportunity to make it right with a good, neighborly compromise.
While the idea of wiping the system out is undoubtedly satisfying, that’s just not going to happen. Instead, how do we work with the system we have?
The DNC can fix this.
The problem is not necessarily in the fact that voter information is being used this way, though I do have conflicted feelings about the practice — the dilemma we’re faced with results from campaigns pulling from a patchwork of sources. When there’s no central location for a transgender person to correct their name, we have a problem.
Getting one’s name changed in so many locations is a hardship for many trans people, and I know that progressives could focus the time and energy to do this better. The fact is, they choose not to because the system isn’t equipped for name changes, and we aren’t a large enough demographic for them to care about accommodating us.
That needs to be fixed if the DNC actually means to support trans people through action and not just use us for “inclusive” photo ops. Name changes pose a financial hurdle for many trans people, and not offering real ways to update a preferred name in a system like this is mainly hitting at low-income trans folks, which makes up a large percentage of the trans community.
I fully understand that campaigns are not going to stop using voter records to personalize texts. I think a proper compromise would need to come in the form of standardizing a means for people to update their preferred name across all databases. The DNC has the power to step in and provide a central location for corrections of this nature. Then data companies like TargetSmart and i360 could run that whitelist against their texting databases.
It would need to be taken seriously, and candidates would need to insist that the data company of their choice do this before they pay for the list.
I implore the Democratic National Committee and, more specifically, DNC chair Tom Perez to take the needs of trans people seriously here and provide campaigns with a unified way to better serve the trans community.