'You've Got Mail' Risky Message For Candidates

Politicians are finding that sending e-mail is a way to reach people and save money on postage. But in several states, that has backfired.

An Internet Service Provider pulled the plug on a California candidate's Web site, an e-mail recipient list fell into an opponent's hands in Florida, and voters complained about unsolicited messages from candidates in Hawaii and Texas.

Many state laws ban unsolicited commercial e-mail commonly known as spam. But candidates sending unsolicited messages say the U.S. Constitution protects political speech and trumps any anti-spam law.

Candidates use e-mail because like a TV ad, it lets them deliver a message unfiltered by the media. But experts say it carries pitfalls for politicians.

"Right now, spam is very dangerous for candidates," because if any complaints reach a candidate's Internet Service Provider the company might deny him or her further service, said Michael Cornfield, associate research professor at George Washington University and research director at the Pew-funded Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet.

The institute advocates standards for U.S. online politics.

California Secretary of State Bill Jones was denied service earlier this year when his gubernatorial campaign sent unsolicited messages to one million people four days before the March 5 Republican primary, which he lost.

Tom Yeatts, president and CEO of VirtualSprockets, Jones' Internet service provider, said in a statement, "Bill Jones' emails violate the rules of Netiquette" because of how the messages were sent: through a server in a Korean elementary school.

A spokesman for Jones' campaign could not be reached.

In Florida, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill McBride got his messages out but his mailing list fell into the wrong hands.

Hundreds of people who signed up to receive electronic updates from McBride, a Tampa lawyer, instead got e-mail from Gov. Jeb Bush's campaign urging them to consider voting for the Republican.

The Bush campaign got McBride's mailing list when McBride's campaign sent an update without hiding the list of recipients in the message header.

Robin Rorapaugh, McBride's campaign manager, said, "I don't believe it was very effective for the Bush campaign. I thought it was a little underhanded."

Sending e-mail to people who don't want to hear from a candidate is another way candidates get into trouble.

Ed Case, Democratic candidate for Hawaii governor, received complaints after an accidental commingling of databases resulted in electronic messages being sent to people who didn't ask for them.

Case spokesman Randy Obata said, "The last thing the campaign wants to do is send e-mail a person doesn't want. We certainly understand the sensitivity about e-mail."

While political e-mail surfaces every election cycle, "people don't like it. They find it annoying," said Jonah Seiger, co-founder and chief strategist of Mindshare Internet Campaigns, a Washington, D.C. firm that develops online communications strategies. "So if you're a candidate and seeking to trade on impressions of goodwill and legitimacy, using a technology that is associated with snake oil salesman isn't going to help."

But political e-mail may be here to stay because it lets politicians match voter lists with e-mails for a targeted effect.

E-mail list-brokers mesh databases of voters' names with lists of e-mail addresses from people who have agreed to accept unsolicited e-mail. But it's not an exact science; the matching process sometimes has unintended results.

E-mail from Texas Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tony Sanchez intended for Texas voters was sent out-of-state.

Despite the misfires, the program's benefits, such as having voters click through to the candidate's Web site, are "a big win," said Nathan Wilcox, Sanchez campaign's Internet strategist.

"Mr. Sanchez is personally committed to using this tool because he can hear back from the voters," Wilcox said.

E-mail's cost-savings compared to postal mail also appeals to candidates.

"The smart candidates, the savvy candidates are opting for e-mail on a bigger and bigger basis, said Larry Purpuro, managing director of Right Clicks Strategies, a Washington, D.C. e-marketing firm.

Right Clicks merges databases of e-mail addresses and voter rolls for between 55 cents and 85 cents per e-mail address, versus about 35 cents per piece of postal mail.

Purpuro said the e-mail system is cheaper than postal charges if the e-mail list is used repeatedly.

"It works exceptionally well," Purpuro said. "We give people the option to opt out of future communication. What's all the fuss? It's dumb for a candidate to keep e-mailing people who say take me off the list. But I disagree with the purists and Birkenstock crowd who say you shouldn't be able to send a simple e-mail unless you've gotten written, engraved permission."