In 2006, roughly three in five voters received a telephone call with a prerecorded message related to a political campaign, making so-called robo-calls the second most popular form of voter contact used during the election cycle. These highly impersonal calls aren't terribly effective individually, but their extremely low cost (as low as just a few pennies a call) makes it such that they can be used in bulk much more cheaply then, say, direct mail or paid canvassers. What's more, robo-calls allow a significantly higher level of anonymity than other forms of voter contact. As such, it should come as little surprise that the tactic was deceptively used to suppress the vote -- predominantly, last fall, as Republicans tried to keep Democratic voters and Democratic-leaning Independents at home.
A number of states have begun to look at legislation reining in robo-calls largely because of their susceptibility to being used nefariously -- in Connecticut, according to The Hartford Courant, "robo-call companies are using robo calls to urge state legislators not to ban robo calls". Senate Democrats are on the ball on the matter as well; Barack Obama is working on legislation related to deceptive campaign techniques with Chuck Schumer, as the presidential contender noted in his recent interview with this site. And over in the House, a coalition is coming together to place new restrictions on these automated calls. Jean Chemnick has the story for The Politico.
The 2002 law that makes federal candidates take responsibility for TV and radio ads could extend to the Internet and pre-recorded telephone calls, if Rep. David E. Price, D-N.C., and Rep. Mike Castle, R-Del., have their way.
They recently introduced a bill that would extend the requirements set in "Stand By Your Ad" for candidates and groups that launch ads on the Internet or over e-mail. It's their second attempt; a similar bill they introduced two years ago went nowhere after it went to the House Administration Committee under former Rep. Robert W. Ney, R-Ohio.
The Responsible Campaign Communications Act would also require anyone using pre-recorded telephone calls ("robo-calls") to state upfront who they are. Currently robo-calling candidates who do identify themselves can do so late in the call usually after the person they've called has hung up.
Former Federal Election Commissioner Bradley A. Smith disagreed [eith Castle on the need for such a regulation]. He also disagreed with the premise of Stand By Your Ad in general. Reformers, he explained, want to make it harder to run ads or to dictate what form they could take. The verbal tagline is redundant, he argued, when ads also have to disclose the sponsor's name in writing. Furthermore, the tagline takes up precious time better spent on the candidate's message; as an example, he cited Patrick Henry's famous "Give me liberty or give me death" as the perfect fit for a four-second slot.
There are a number of things wrong with the campaign finance legislation that was signed into law in 2002, but requiring campaigns to clearly identify who is paying for advertisements is not one of them. True, the regulations did not stop someone like Republican Vernon Robinson from raising more than a million dollars to pay for insane ads attacking his Democratic opponent, incumbent Brad Miller. (Miller, incidentally, still won by close to a 2-to-1 margin.) That said, in most even moderately competitive campaigns these regulations keep candidates from running ads that are too over-the-top for fear of backlash, and extending the rules requiring clear identification of sponsorship to robo-calls could go a long way towards discouraging candidates and, perhaps more importantly, party committees from using this tactic to deceive voters and drive down the vote.
Update [2007-2-15 12:17:45 by Jonathan Singer]:Adam B clarifies a few points in the comments.