Forget about campaign posters, or emails, or leaflets, or door-to-door canvassing. The last two weeks of this election season, as one Ohio congressman put it, are going to be all about "robo-mania."
Last week, former Secretary of State Colin Powell cited John McCain's automated phone message, or robo-call, linking Barack Obama with "domestic terrorist" Bill Ayers as a reason for crossing party lines to publicly endorse the Illinois Democrat. (The Obama campaign later repudiated McCain's message in its own series of robo-calls). Voters have already received recorded phone messages from Rudy Giuliani, Scarlett Johannson, Jay-Z and "Joe Martinez the Plumber." Even "Obama Girl" is lashing out at the campaign tactic.Listen to various robo-calls from the 2008 campaign:
While call centers have played a prominent role in politics since the 1940s Richard Nixon worked the phones for his successful 1946 run for the U.S. House of Representatives automated dialing and message playback weren't perfected until the late 1980s. Since then, thanks to improved technology and decreased cost, the campaign tactic has become the leading method to reach voters. In fact, the Pew Research Center found that nearly two-thirds of American households in battleground states like Ohio and Florida received robo-calls in the final weeks of the 2006 midterm elections, with some voters receiving as many as nine calls a day.
The operation is easy enough to set up; one only needs a computer, the right software, and a DS3 telephone line. At a cost of as little as 5 cents per call, campaigns using this equipment can reach as many as 2,500 households a minute.
Of course, the technology can sometimes backfire. In March, more than 5,000 residents of Ohio's Cuyahoga County received robo-calls between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m. because of faulty programming. That kind of mistake, as one pundit points out, could swing an election in entirely the wrong way.
Robo-calls can also make an already contentious election that much nastier. In 2000, Republicans John McCain and George W. Bush attacked one another for automated phone calls that used the words "vicious bigot" and "satanic cult;" both campaigns denied responsibility, blaming overzealous supporters, while McCain went so far as to refer to them as "hate calls."
With costs so cheap, even private citizens are getting involved. One DIY "robo-caller" from Austin, Texas funded his own phone drive during the South Carolina primary that targeted Hillary Clinton. The recorded message included claims that Clinton had paid someone to kill an opponent's cat: "Hillary thinks cats are expendable. Can you trust her?" In May, the Minnesota Family Council recorded messages that used the words "anal and oral sex" in an effort to defeat a bill for sex education in school; ironically, the organization received complaints from parents whose children had answered such calls. In March, one Ohio man posted a video on YouTube pleading with Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to stop calling his home. (He still receives calls).
Political robo-calls are regulated by the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which requires the organization or individual sponsoring the message to identify themselves as well as provide a telephone number or address to which voters can respond. But because robo-calls are considered a form of political speech, they are protected by the First Amendment and, therefore, not subject to the National Do-Not-Call Registry created in 2003 that allows consumers to block unwanted telemarketing calls.
States like California, Indiana and New Jersey have banned political robo-calling outright, but such laws are routinely flouted not only because few agencies enforce the rules but because voters are often unaware that their rights are being violated. Indiana's Attornery General unsuccessfully sued a Democratic non-profit group, American Family Voices, for launching a series of robo-calls against then-Rep. Mike Sodrel. Though the state's supreme court heard his appeal in June, it still hasn't issued its ruling.
In February, Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced The Robocall Privacy Act, banning political robo-calls to the same household more than twice a day and mandating that such calls be made during the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. It didn't take long for the American Association of Political Consultants to launch a fundraising drive to challenge the bill. Congress has yet to vote on it.
Shaun Dakin, who worked in calling centers for the Democratic Party during the 2004 and 2006 election cycles, remembers the often profanity-laden responses he received from voters angered by mid-meal calls. "Some would tell me, 'Hey guess what, you're calling for X campaign, well then I'm going to vote for Y campaign." For this reason, he launched a movement to create a political version of the Do Not Call registry, arguing that voters should at least be able to opt out. His website, StopPoliticalCalls.org, even includes a "Robo-Call of Shame."
"Politicians love regulating everybody else," Dakin told TIME. "But they hate regulating themselves." Where's robo-cop when you need him?