TPM on deceptive robo-call story

TPM Muckracker is digging further into the story of the deceptive robo-calls in North Carolina that targeted African-American voters.

(Note: My earlier dairy on this subject, Clinton backers behind deceptive robo-calls aimed at blacks, was pulled from the top of the rec list by someone in charge.)

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Journalism or Tabloids?

Folks, here we are again.

Yesterday was a rough day for our opponent.  Hillary is surging in all polls, particularly North Carolina.  And Barack's just had another public-relations disaster of his own making.  So, we know what that means, right?

Time for distraction.

And, since we're headed into the Deep South:

The issue of race is bound to come up.

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Congress Looks to Rein in Deceptive Robo-Calls

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.

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The Year of the Robo-Call

The Pew Internet & American Life Project (.pdf) has undertaken the first comprehensive study of voter contact during the 2006 midterms, and the results are rather interesting.

Nearly two-thirds of registered voters (64%) received recorded telephone messages in the final stages of the 2006 mid-term election. These so-called "robo-calls" were the second most popular way for campaigns and political activists to reach voters, trailing only direct mail as a key tool of political communication. Some 71% of registered voters got direct mail campaign solicitations, while 24% received phone calls from real human beings urging their vote for a particular candidate, 18% were visited at their homes, and 14% received email solicitations.


Even though this was a mid-term election, there were increases in some of the other kinds of voter contacts compared with what happened in the 2004 presidential campaign.  

Some 49% of American adults got direct mail contacts from candidates in 2004, compared with 61% this year. And 10% of American adults were visited in their homes by political activists in 2004, compared with 16% this year. In contrast, the number of Americans getting email political solicitations dropped slightly from 15% in 2004 to 12% in 2006.

Earlier this month I glommed onto the idea that we should tightly regulate robo-calls, perhaps even crafting an outright ban. This was largely a response to the deceptive robo-calls commissioned by Republican operatives seeking to depress the Democratic and Independent vote in the hopes of somehow maintaining the GOP majorities in Congress. Additionally, however, this reflected my own experience with using robo-calls during the waning days of the campaign -- and the resulting messages I received from voters peeved about receiving pre-recorded phone messages.

In retrospect, a complete ban on these calls would probably be excessive -- and perhaps even unconstitutional. But strict regulations on the content of the calls -- requiring clear identification of the call's sponsor at the outset of the call in the same tenor and speed as the rest of the call; making these calls subject to the Do-Not-Call registry or a similar, though separate, registry; etc. -- are becoming increasingly necessary with campaigns' increased use of this tactic.

The number that jumps out at me, however, is how few voters (18 percent of those registered) were actually visited at home by campaigns. Although this can be expensive, if paid staff or contractors are used rather than volunteers, and it can be prohibitively difficult in some rural areas, face-to-face voter conversations tend to be the most effective form of voter contact. If the Democrats can boost that number, particularly among Democratic voters and even Independents, they could even extend the gains they made on November 7 even further.

(Below the fold: Asking you the same questions as the Pew poll.)

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...).

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