The Lesson of 2006: Stop Political Home Invasions

robocalls.jpgnicholson-shining.jpgEvery election cycle should be a learning experience. In 1988, for instance, the lesson was “Read My Lips: No Tank Pictures.” In 1998, it was “Um, maybe impeachment isn’t such a cool idea after all.” This year, my personal take-away is “Kill Robo-Calls.”

I’ve always thought of these automated, pre-recorded election pitches, which feature the scratchy voice of some political figure or other luminary, as a wen on the body politic: an obnoxious intrusion into people’s homes. I’ve never seen a shred of evidence that they actually, strictly speaking, you know, worked, and my gut tells me that they turn off more people than they persuade.

What is an annoyance for most of us is a threat to the health and well-being of some. Take the case of a Connecticut woman, preparing for breast cancer surgery, who received dozens of unsolicited robo-callsduring that state’s primary season. She was quoted as saying, “I would conservatively say I got 60 calls . . . I’m waiting for biopsy results and I’m getting these phone calls. I was awakened out of a sound sleep the day before my surgery.”

During the 2006 election cycle, voters have reported receiving robo-calls purporting to give information about a candidate, with the message only disclosing at the end that it actually is a negative call paid for by the opposition party. Others have reported that they received the same pre-recorded call many times in a row. I say, get rid of ’em. I’ve asked Legislative Services to draft legislation, modeled on an Indiana bill, placing broad restrictions on robo-calls, including campaign messages, within the Commonwealth. It’s worth a try, doncha think?

19 thoughts on “The Lesson of 2006: Stop Political Home Invasions”

  1. The link to the Indiana site doesn’t work but I get your point. I got tons of calls this year – from both sides. While I just hang up on the ones I don’t want to listen to, they have certainly become a nuisance. (I got one every afternoon for about 10 days from the RNC.)

    I used the calls when I ran (which could be why I’m a bit more tolerant) but I think that people should be able to opt out.

  2. Isn’t it interesting that incumbents are the ones to try to limit candidates’ ability to communicate with voters? Oh, that pesky First Amendment.

  3. I don’t like them period. I feel that if I am on the do not call list then that should also keep politicians from calling me. Tom Davis annoyed me with four identical robo calls within a week. My wife says she also got one so that is five identical robo calls to one number within one week. There is no good reason for that many identical calls to one household.

  4. Anybody claiming First Amendment rights must also concede that they believe that commercial robocalls should also be legal. If it’s OK for the Allen campaign to call my house and play a recording 20 times consecutively, then it’s also OK for Blockbuster, Geico, or any idiot to do the same. And anybody who believes that market forces will dictate the results (candidates who annoy people will lose) must also believe that the same applies to commercial robocalls (companies who annoy people will go out of business).

  5. Waldo, The Supreme Court doesn’t think like you do. In their mind, political speech is more protected by the First Amendment than commercial speech. Brink is a lawyer; he ought to know that.

  6. “If it’s OK for the Allen campaign to call my house and play a recording 20 times consecutively, then it’s also OK for Blockbuster, Geico, or any idiot to do the same.”

    –>Not quite. The courts have ruled that commercial speech does not have the same protections as political speech.

  7. If robocalls are used responsibly, I do not see anything wrong with them. I don’t agree with legislating it.

  8. The Supreme Court doesn’t think like you do. In their mind, political speech is more protected by the First Amendment than commercial speech.

    And yet both are subject to time, place, and manner restrictions — that regard the SCOTUS and I agree quite nicely.

    Comparing blockbuster to politics is degrading to democracy, IMHO.

    That’s beside the point — the legal standards are similar, and must be applied fairly in each instance.

  9. The answer may lie in Federaly financed elections where money spent wisely would not include such a low-payoff activity. For a #2.50 per citizen we could finance all Fed. elections. That is a bargain!

  10. Political speech is a core first amendment right. However, a property owner can restrict who may come onto his or her property, even if the would be trespasser is engaged in political speech. Robo-calls may be political speech, but they are not in a public forum and as such may be subjected to restrictions that other political speech would not be.

  11. On the issue of free speech, you have a right to stand on my street corner and speak your mind. You don’t have a right to stand on my street corner with a sound truck at three in the morning in order to do so. Its nusance law, right? I think robo calls ought to fall in the same catagory- allowed, but not allowed to be a nusance. (Slight bias disclosure, I just got off a campaign where the opposition used a message that was “Hi, I’m calling with some information about X” people thought they were coming from us when quickly deleted. We got reports of phone calls at 5 am and 11 pm at night, in addition to being 6 or 7 calls a day for weeks. That’s not political speech. Thats not even speech. Thats annoying, rude, and downright terrible).

  12. I refuse to vote for any candidate that contacts me by phone. If I think that some party has engaged in dirty tricks, I will not vote for any candidate from that party. Leave our phones alone!

  13. There are limits on political robo-calling. The FEC requires that the call’s sponsor announce they are making the call at the beginning of the message. The Republicans violated this in many races during the election by announcing their sponsorship at the end of the calls (these were the infamous calls described above). We’ll have to see if the FEC will enforce their rules. So, I believe a carefully crafted law limiting robo-calls should pass constitutional muster. I also think you need to consider how to investigate and punish robo-calls in real time. In some of these races, the margin of victory was mere hundreds of votes, so it may be worth a $2 million fine to make the calls, especially if Republicans had maintained their majority. Some states create election fraud taskforces that could be a rapid response focal point for credible claims of dirty tricks (how to fashion a non-partisan taskforce is a whole other matter).

  14. I have always been of the opinion that your freedom ends where mine begins and I don’t believe you have the right to come into my home and say whatever you what, whenever you decided to. We finally got freedom from all the telephone calls in the “Do Not Call List” and politicians should be included in do not call rules. If someone is depending on “Robo-Calls” to make up their mind as to who to vote for, they are lax in doing their duty to be an informed voter.
    I can’t believe anyone would want to claim First Amendment rights to defend these calls, the most calls I have received are from Republicans and everyone knows what lying crooks they are. Nobody died when Clinton lied.

  15. Isn’t it interesting that incumbents are the ones to try to limit candidates’ ability to communicate with voters?

    Could that have anything to do with incumbents being the ones who make the laws? How challengers would go about altering law, as implied in Shorty’s quote, is a mystery.

    And it seems to me that incumbents, having in general deeper war chests, are worse at overloading voters with contact than challengers.

  16. Like it or not, the 1st Amendment is a license to lie and distort. That does not mean do it. That means live with it. The power of truth to set things right depends on getting it out effectively. Truth can be a hard sell.

    Scheduling wins friends. Issues wins supporters. Media wins votes. Ask any loser which is most important.

    In Virginia’s 7th District in the early 70s, Congressman J. Kenneth Robinson was opposed by challenger Murat Williams. According to Field and Stream magazine Robinson had the weakest voting record on environmental issues among freshmen in congress . The Williams campaign placed a newspaper ad reproducing the magazine’s chart of Robinson votes. No alterations, just the facts. A newspaper owner in Rockingham County refused the ad on the grounds he “doesn’t do mud-slinging.” A phone call revealed that he truly believed publishing a congressman’s voting record was dirty politics … if it made his candidate look bad.

    Every campaign that publishes a comprehensive, honest biog for a candidate sees the opponent claim it’s filled with lies. When confronted, the opponent will be unable to site a single lie but he will not back off the claim.

    Campaigning is not a gentleman’s game nor should it be, because politics is not a gentleman’s job. A strong stomach is an important credential for being effective in office.

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