Former U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp connected to false text about Kansas abortion amendment

Texts spreading misinformation don’t run afoul of law, officials say

By: - August 2, 2022 11:37 am
Democrats in Kansas received this unsolicited text message on Monday, which falsely claims that a "yes" vote protects reproductive rights. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Democrats in Kansas received this unsolicited text message on Monday, which falsely claims that a “yes” vote protects reproductive rights. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Former U.S. Rep. Tim Huelskamp is behind the false text message about the constitutional amendment that enraged Democrats on Monday, the Washington Post reports.

The newspaper traced the unsolicited text messages to a political tech firm called Alliance Forge and identified Huelskamp’s Do Right PAC as the client behind the campaign.

Huelskamp, a Republican who represented the state in Congress from 2011 to 2017, didn’t immediately respond to a phone call and voice message from Kansas Reflector seeking comment for this story.

State officials said the use of voter registration data to deliberately mislead voters doesn’t violate state law because lying is allowed in election advertisements, and unsolicited text messages about ballot questions don’t require senders to reveal their identities.

Twilio, the company whose services were used to send the message, says its fraud team was investigating and taking “appropriate actions” to stop the spread of misinformation.

Democrats were infuriated by the text message they received Monday, which inaccurately said that “voting YES on the amendment will give women a choice.” A yes vote would actually end the right to terminate a pregnancy in Kansas and give the Legislature the authority to pass a total ban on abortion. A no vote would preserve the status quo, in which abortion is heavily regulated and legal through 22 weeks of gestation.

“This is as dirty as you can get,” said Davis Hammet, a voting rights advocate, in a tweet. “The anti-abortion coalition is sending out a last minute mass text to Kansas pro-choice voters blatantly lying about the abortion amendment so they vote the wrong way.”

Bryan Caskey, the state elections director, says the Secretary of State’s Office has fielded dozens of complaints about the text message but that the office doesn’t have the authority under Kansas law to investigate the matter.

Political operatives can purchase the voter registration file from the secretary of state’s office, a public record that includes names, party affiliation and contact information for voters. They can separately purchase a daily update of individuals who have cast advanced ballots.

State law prohibits the use of this information for commercial purposes, but campaigns can use it to encourage select voters to go to the polls.

“The use of voter registration data for this type of communication is not something that we believe violates the law,” Caskey said.

The Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission, in a statement responding to complaints about the text, said state law doesn’t require text messages to say who paid for them if the messages are about a ballot question. Additionally, state law specifically allows misleading advertising for elections, the ethics commission said.

In a series of Twitter statements responding to complaints about the false information on the abortion amendment, Twilio said it is “working diligently to ensure this is handled correctly.”

“Spreading misinformation is a direct violation of our Terms of Service so although we don’t have an update to share, we assure you that we take misinformation very seriously,” the company said.

According to the Washington Post, Twilio confirmed the numbers used to send the text messages were leased to Nevada-based Alliance Forge. The CEO for Alliance Forge said the company was notified Monday night of a “possible content violation” and began working with Twilio to identify the source of the text messages. The CEO said the company “did not consult on this message’s messaging strategy or content,” the Washington Post reported.

Campaign finance reports show Huelskamp’s PAC has spent more than $200,000 in support of the amendment, including $26,000 on services from Alliance Forge between June 29 and July 11.

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Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.