Stateline Story

States Target Political Robo-calls

As Shaun Dakin phoned a list of Cleveland voters while campaigning for John Kerry in 2004, he wondered whether he was doing more harm than good for his candidate when the voices on the other end became angrier and more aggressive with each call.

A volunteer for state and national campaigns since 1988, Dakin learned that some households were being targeted 10 to 15 times a day by pre-recorded political calls, or robo-calls, on top of the personal calls made by campaign volunteers.

Concerned, Dakin launched in October Citizens for Civil Discourse , a nonpartisan nonprofit organization devoted to helping voters eliminate "phone spam" by creating a political do-not-call list similar to the National Do Not Call Registry , which doesn't include political calls.

Because robo-calls are cheap and easier to make than personal campaign calls, they account for the majority of political calls - and most of the complaints. Dakin created the registry, which is not backed by law as the federal list is, to raise awareness and push for stronger legislation to restrict robo-calls.

More than a dozen states already have laws banning or limiting robo-calls in some way, for example, restricting when or how often they can be made.

In Oregon , where a bill passed in January added political robo-calls to the state's do-not-call registry, the Clinton and Obama campaigns illegally robo-called voters anyway before the May 20 presidential primary. The campaigns apologized, stopped the calls and will not be fined, according to the attorney general's office.

But while some states, like Oregon , are cracking down on robo-calls, many of the laws in other states are weak, not enforced or being challenged.

Indiana , for example, bans all campaign robo-calls under one of the strictest laws in the nation, according to Dakin. But in February, a local judge dismissed a case attempting to enforce the law, ruling it should not include political calls because the callers aren't selling "tangible objects," as the law prescribes.

The state has appealed his ruling, but the confusion has called into question robo-calls made before Indiana 's recent primary. No legal action has been taken as a result of complaints.

In North Carolina , where the attorney general's office received about 100 complaints about robo-calls in the weeks leading up to its May 6 primary, some of these robo-calls are under scrutiny.

Just before the primary, the nonprofit group Women's Voices. Women Vote put out automated calls that did not identify the group but that urged voters to complete a voter-registration packet that would arrive by mail. But the mail-in voter-registration deadline in the state had passed, and the organization's instructions confused already registered voters.

Besides spreading misinformation, the robo-calls may have violated North Carolina 's law by not identifying the caller.

The case is being investigated by Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is supporting a bill that would strengthen the state's existing law by including campaign robo-calls in North Carolina 's do-not-call registry. The legislation remains in the state House.

"People in North Carolina who have signed up for the Do Not Call Registry have said loud and clear that they don't want to be bothered with telephone solicitations," Cooper said in a letter to the state's political parties that asked candidates to voluntarily comply with the do-not-call list.

Erik Arneson, spokesman for Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Dominic Pileggi (R), agrees. "People should be able to decide whether political robo-calls are something they want to be receiving," Arneson said. After hearing complaints from previous campaigns and getting the calls himself, Pileggi sponsored a bill banning political robo-calls to those on the state's do-not-call registry.

Eight days after the Pennsylvania 's April 22 primary, the state Senate passed Pileggi's bill, with a reminder still fresh in their minds of "how annoying robo-calls are and why the legislation needed to be passed," Arneson said. If the House passes the legislation, the state's updated do-not-call list would be available for November's election.

Dakin blames the failure of most similar bills in other states on election jitters.

"Lawmakers facing re-election are very reluctant to regulate anything that will hurt them in the election," Dakin said. "There's example upon example of 'Let's get some good press,' but most of these bills die in subcommittee."

Bills have recently failed in Colorado , Ohio and Illinois , as well as in South Carolina , where a bill was introduced on a Tuesday and dead on Wednesday after its first consideration in committee.

More than twice as many voters said they received robo-calls than personal campaign calls in the primary season up to mid-March than last November, according to an April 3 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press , which, like Stateline.org , is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report pointed out, however, that an "overwhelming" number of Iowa and New Hampshire voters who were surveyed said they were more likely to listen to the personal calls.

While the data demonstrate that robo-calls may not be very effective, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D-Calif.), says they also may hurt democracy.

"Not only is (the practice) interfering with the privacy rights of Americans, but it can turn people away from the political process itself," Feinstein said at a Senate Committee on Rules and Administration hearing on a bill she and U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, (R-Pa.), co-sponsored to restrict political robo-calls to daytime hours. It also limits robo-calls to no more than two a day to the same phone number. The committee is considering the bill.

North Carolina 's Attorney General Cooper supported Feinstein's legislation, testifying that he hoped restrictions on robo-calls will be made nationwide, as he waits for action to be taken on the local level.

"We see a clear need for restrictions on political robo-calls," said Cooper in his testimony at the hearing. "At best, these unsolicited automatic calls interrupt home life and family time. At worst, the calls can cut access to emergency help and medical assistance."

In the U.S. House side, Reps. Virginia Foxx, (R-N.C.), and Jason Altmire, (D-Pa.), have sponsored separate but similar legislation that would add political robo-calls to the National Do Not Call Registry.

Because states are having a tough time passing legislation and federal bills are still pending, Richard Gilmore, head of the robo-call firm, Democratic Dialing , said he believes it is time for the industry to step in.

"What I'd like to see is self-governing within the industry," Gilmore said, expressing hope that this would prevent the industry "from being legislated out of business" by lawmakers trying to quell the anger of their constituents.