States Move to Rein in Political Robo-Calls; Congress Should Too
by Jonathan Singer, Thu Dec 07, 2006 at 04:57:16 PM EST
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...).