States Move to Rein in Political Robo-Calls; Congress Should Too

During the lead up to last month's elections, Republicans perfected yet another mode of voter suppression: repeated, misleading prerecorded phone calls that either gave the impression that Democratic candidates were harassing voters or forced voters to listen to harsh attacks on Democratic candidates. Now, according to CQ Weekly's Shawn Zeller (no link available), a number of states are moving to curtail Republicans' ability to use this stealthy and rather deceiptful practice.

So now, legislatures in at least six states -- Connecticut, Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin -- are moving to stem the practice, either by banning altogether use of the machines that make the calls or by expanding state do-not-call lists to include automated political campaign calls.

"This is an abuse of privacy," says Stan Jordan, a Republican state representative from Jacksonville, Fla. "People are paying for that phone in their home, and politicians are using what they paid for as a tool of destruction."

Jordan and other robocall foes would still condone use of human-staffed campaign phone banks. There's a natural limit to how many calls a person can make, Jordan notes -- and voters can ask not to be called again if a real person reaches them. Not so with robocalls, which are limited only by the memory chips of the dialing machines.

Not only are these states right in moving against these bad faith practices, the new Democratic Congress should seriously think about regulating robo-calls as well, whether outlawing the use of them in altogether or for those on teh do-not-call registry or alternatively placing strict requirements for those financing the calls to clearly identify themselves and who they are supporting at the beginning of the calls.

But even aside from this, it's not clear to me that robo-calls -- the more up front kind (rather than the more duplicitous variety) -- are as effective as many believe. It is true that they are extremely cheap and thus allow for a high volume of voter contacts without a large investment. At the same time, they irritate a lot of voters. In my personal campaign experience, I would probably opt not to spend money on robo-calls in the future even in the absence of new legislation prohibiting or limiting their use (boy, did I enjoy the calls I received on my cell phone from voters wholly opposed to prerecorded phone messages!).

So I would like to see Congress take up some legislation on the matter. It doesn't have to be immediate. It certainly does not need to be a top priority of Congressional Democrats. But before the year is out, the Democrats should try to rein in political robo-calls. And if they do so, there's little doubt in my mind that they will win more friends than they lose (all apologies to robo-call vendors...).

Tags: Robo-Calls, voter supression (all tags)




I'm behind bans on robocalls (proposed it on another blog two weeks ago, in fact) but...

We should note that it can both help and hurt us: I have hearsay evidence of a big poll by a Dem firm purporting to show that robo-calls from Bill Clinton and other big names to drop-off voters (in labor households, maybe?) showed great results this year, and you may remember that robocalls from Clinton to black voters may well have put Mary Landrieu over the edge in 2002, when internal disputes among Louisiana's black pols almost kept a critical mass of black voters home.

OTOH those GOP robocalls were nasty, and the only effective way to stop them might be to ban robocalling tout court. If I were a legislator I'd vote to ban them.

by accommodatingly 2006-12-07 05:25PM | 0 recs
Re: robocalls

I favor expanding Do Not Call lists to cover robocalls, not an outright ban. I have a feeling that those on Do Not Call lists are more likely to be frequent voters - if you can only get down to the polls once every four years, you're probably a lot less likely to get the do-not-call paperwork submitted.

By the way, robocalls are "limited only by the memory chips of the dialing machines"? That reporter clearly hasn't done much research into how autodialers work.

by scvmws 2006-12-07 06:29PM | 0 recs
Re: States Move to Rein in Political Robo

If I get a robo-call that seems to support some neocon, I place the receiver on the table and let it waste as much of it's bandwidth as possible. If I get a robo-call that supports a decent candidate, I hang right up, so it can call someone else.

by blues 2006-12-07 06:35PM | 0 recs
Re: States Move to Rein in Political Robo-Calls

I don't believe robo-calls per se are the problem -- GOTV robocalls by prominent Dems are a good thing, and we do them a lot.

The problem is robo-calls that are used to spread negative messages, and without accountability.   So I'd rather try a minimal step first -- require that all automated calls begin with the name of the sponsor of the call being announced, at the same volume and rate of speech as the rest of the call.  

by Adam B 2006-12-07 06:46PM | 0 recs
Re: States Move to Rein in Political Robo-Calls

I think that's about right.

by Jonathan Singer 2006-12-07 07:02PM | 0 recs
by JJCPA 2006-12-07 06:57PM | 0 recs

Obama's bill concerns deceptive practices generally, and not automated calls in particular.  Which is how it should be, I think -- and he may not be done yet.

by Adam B 2006-12-07 07:21PM | 0 recs
how else to spend that last minute cash?

as i understand it robocalls are used primarily because the campaign typically gets a lot of cash at exactly the moment when its options for using it are most limited, in the last few days of the campaign.  can't buy tv ads, can't send mail.  so how else do you spend that money?

by Shai Sachs 2006-12-07 07:16PM | 0 recs
This is just bad design

the robo caller should be a dialer with voter info, passing the call to a live person without a robotic , formant text to speech or prerecorded message.

this should be a best practice, imho. the calls that should be against the law are the fake ones that are meant only to irritate, or the patently untrue.

so this initiative just needs one refinement, I think what we should require here is working caller ID for every candidate. This caller ID should be clear and registered.

second, a nominal percent of the calls on the lists for the campaigns should be required to be from past opposing sides, with consent to be given to record the call.

what last item will do is keep them honest. they will never know if they are calling someone who can  tape the conversation.

finally, we should remember that the majority of the robocallers are from affiliated groups. Any group making a call on behalf of the candidate must be listed on a website or maybe each others site.

This should be easy to check for the caller. That is, the caller should be allowed to check a website during the call.

Finally, a do not call request should be honored in accordance with FCC regulations. The do not call list apparently does not e xtend to political calls... however do not call lists are meant to discourage unsolicited calls.  What is the real difference? This last here  of course is the runt of the litter.. obviously they'll keep making the calls..

They should be more simple, open, truthful and even daresay for both parties - more effective.

by heyAnita 2006-12-07 07:57PM | 0 recs
Robo calls? Or political robots?

Lo que me preocupa no es tanto las llamadas "robo"... es que tantos candidatos se comportan como robotos increibles.  

What worries me is not so much the "robo" calls... it's that so many candidates act like such incredible robots.  

by diego277 2006-12-07 09:25PM | 0 recs
Re: States Move to Rein in Political Robo-Calls; C

Del. Bob Brink on why he is proposing a ban on Robo calls.

by Alice Marshall 2006-12-08 01:20AM | 0 recs
Nixon used human callers to deliver smear

In 1946 and again in 1950, Nixon's campaign used anonymous callers to red-bait Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglass--"pink right down to the color of her underwear."

My parents were recipients of several.

So it's the GOP, not the phone company, that's to blame.

I would hate to see them banned. There is a first amendment issue, and they have tactical possibilities that Democrats have yet to exploit.

Robocalls could be a tremendous organizational tool early in a campaign, rather than later. The nuisance value is less when there are not such a flurry of them. Integrated with email, website and messaging, this could be pretty hot technology for a campaign trying to get going on a shoestring.

by stevehigh 2006-12-08 04:59AM | 0 recs
Re: Nixon used human callers to deliver smear

In FL-13, I actually credit Tramm 'What, Negroes can swim? Who knew?' Hudson's loss to Vern 'Used Car Salesman' Buchanan in the GOP primary to robocalls.

Tramm's own robocalls. They were frequent and obnoxious. Tramm, previously the frontrunner, actually came in third by a few hundred votes, to a relatively poorly funded candidate who had no real support.

To many people, robocalls are annoying even if the message is one you agree with. Having a human on the other end is necessary to ameliorate the annoyance of receiving an unwanted telephone call.

You can limit your robocalls to once or twice, but what you have to realize is that it's not just your one campaign robocall that people are receiving; other candidates are doing it too.

You know what happens as a result? Increased generic voter apathy -- those goddamn crooked politicians calling all day and night! -- and a demand to ban robocalls.

by lightyearsfromhome 2006-12-08 06:58AM | 0 recs


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