Robot telephone dialers - calling you for god and government nannies
Once novel, 'robo-calls' now more of a nuisance
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
Jimmy Higdon, owner of the IGA grocery store in Lebanon, Ky., was thrilled when an automated phone call from the Republican Party helped him get elected state representative in 2002. President Bush praised Higdon and other Republicans in a taped message that was delivered to voters via the campaign technique known as "robo-calls."
"People came into my store and said, 'The president called about you last night,' " Higdon recalls. "It was great."
Today, the thrill is gone. Higdon has introduced legislation in Kentucky to ban political robo-calls to people who don't want them.
The growing volume of computer-generated robo-calls has transformed the practice from novelty to nuisance. "Customer after customer tell me they want these annoying calls stopped," Higdon says.
The Federal Trade Commission's "do not call" list contains more than 145 million phone numbers. That has slashed the number of telemarketing calls nationwide.
The law exempts calls about politics and religion. It also permits robo-calls from tax-exempt groups, such as charities, and companies that have a business relationship with a person. That means politicians, ministers, charities, a person's bank and debt collectors are free under federal law to have their computers phone a home.
The volume of robo-calls has soared as the cost of making them has tumbled. A robo-calling operation may consist of little more than a personal computer hooked to a DS3 telephone line, which can make 672 calls simultaneously and costs less than $100 per month.
Pastor Art Hage of Hurricane Bible Church in Hurricane, W.Va., uses robo-calls to spread religion. A computer in his church makes automated calls with a tape-recorded Bible verse.
"The message tells people that Christ loves them and died for them," Hage says. Other than the technology, it's not much different from when Billy Graham evangelized to thousands of people in stadiums, Hage says.
Federal courts have not ruled whether limits on robo-calls — now in place in 19 states — violate the First Amendment, which grants broad protection to political and religious speech.
Even robo-call opponent Shaun Dakin thinks the state laws may be ruled unconstitutional. In October, his non-partisan group, Citizens for Civil Discourse, started a private registry for people who don't want to get political robo-calls. People can sign up at stoppoliticalcalls.org, and he hopes candidates will voluntarily scrub their phone lists of people who don't want calls.
"Political speech is great," Dakin says. "What we don't like is the lack of permission required for political groups to make these calls."
Political consultants use robo-calls for many purposes, such as polling to see how their candidates are doing and get-out-the-vote efforts. Attack phone calls are the most controversial robo-calls. They typically are written to sound like a legitimate opinion poll or even a call from the candidate being attacked.
"What people object to about robo-calls is the tricks they play," says Rodney Smith, president of TeleTownHall.com, which conducts conference calls between elected representatives and constituents.
He says anti-robo-call laws can hurt efforts to use the telephone for good purposes. His company automatically dials as many as 150,000 homes at a time with a taped message asking if a person wants to join a forum with a member of Congress or other elected official.
Smith says 20% to 35% of people who answer stay on the line for a while. Less than 1% press 2 to be put on a "do not call list."
"It's a big party line of people talking about public policy," Smith says. "It's not a robo-call."
But he can't call Indiana because it strictly enforces a law against automated dialing to homes and delivering a taped message.
Mark Hampton, owner of robodial.org, made more than 2 million robo-calls for Democrats in 2007 at less than 2 cents per call. He says 5% to 20% will respond to automated political surveys by candidates, depending on the time of the call and the "hotness" of the issue.
He also says robo-calls help people apply for absentee ballots. "We get a surprising number of people who press 1" because they need assistance in getting a ballot, Hampton says.
Common Sense Issues, a Colorado group that supports Republican Mike Huckabee but is not affiliated with his campaign, has made millions of robo-calls in support of the former Arkansas governor.
Huckabee this week became the first presidential candidate calling for a ban on attack calls that are disguised as polls. "I personally wish all of this was outlawed," he told National Public Radio.
States try to pull plug on 'robo-calls'
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY
States are trying to disconnect computer-generated political calls that are flooding the nation's households at election time. More than 5 million automated "robo-calls" have been made to potential voters in early primary states. The number of robo-calls could run into the hundreds of millions this election year as the political parties battle for control of the White House, Congress and state governments.
GROWING VOLUME: Once novel, 'robo-calls' now more of a nuisance
"What's making people mad is the volume of calls," says Jerry Dorchuck of Political Marketing International, which provides automated calling services to candidates. "People can get 25 automated calls on the day before an election."
Nineteen states restrict political robo-calls. At least five more will consider limits this year.
The laws range from banning automated calls to limiting times when they occur. Some states require calls to identify who's paying for the call. Other states ban political calls to people on the federal "Do Not Call" registry for commercial telemarketers. Federal law doesn't restrict calls from political, religious or non-profit groups.
Political candidates and special interest groups have turned to robo-calls because they are fast and cheap. A robo-call costs 2 to 4 cents per household compared with about 50 cents for direct mail.
"You can do 100,000 phone calls in an hour for $2,000," says Shaun Dakin, founder of Citizens for Civil Discourse, a non-partisan group critical of robo-calls. "It's efficient and irresistible."
Before the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, 80% of voters received robo-calls, the Pew Research Center found.
Few states have enforced their robo-call laws, partly out of fear that they violate free speech protections.
The laws have been upheld in state courts in Indiana and North Dakota but haven't been tested in federal court.
Political consultants oppose the limits. "One price we pay for living in a free and democratic society is having to listen to messages you may not agree with," says Wayne Johnson, president of the American Association of Political Consultants and a Republican consultant from Sacramento.
Indiana Attorney General Steve Carter, a Republican, says the laws are constitutional. He's taken violators to court and won. "People want peace and quiet, not the incessant intrusion of political phone calls," he says.
There's little research showing whether robo-calls are effective. Mark Hampton, owner of Robodial.org, a Democratic firm, says, "I highly doubt that robo-calls saying 'vote for me on election day' are useful at all."