Campaigns Pick Up the Phone to Get Out the Vote
Sep 24, 1:27 pm ET
By Andy Sullivan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Swing-state voters might want to let the answering machine screen their calls over the next several weeks -- President Bush or Sen. John Kerry could be on the line.
Commercial telemarketing calls have declined sharply since the national "do not call" list took effect nearly a year ago, but voters are likely to hear plenty of prerecorded messages from politicians on the stump as the Nov. 2 election approaches.
"Especially if you're in a swing state, you're never going to be able to sit down and have dinner," said Robert Bulmash, president of Private Citizen Inc., a privacy rights group.
Aluminum-siding salesmen and other telemarketers must steer clear of 62 million phone numbers on the no-call list, and must abide by a long list of other regulations.
For example, they cannot use automatically dialed "robo calls" that deliver a recorded message.
But the politicians who wrote these rules face few restrictions themselves, thanks to court rulings that extend greater protection to political speech than to commercial speech.
At a cost of five cents each, robo calls present a tempting alternative to expensive TV ads, direct mail campaigns and door-knocking, campaign experts say.
"There must be some way that political speech can be communicated if you're going to have a free society," said Wayne Johnson, a Republican media consultant. "It's getting harder to reach voters."
CRUCIAL FOR MARION BARRY
Telemarketing played an important role in former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry's Sept. 14 Democratic primary victory for a City Council seat.
The campaign identified 4,000 active supporters and called them on a regular basis to volunteer or show up for rallies, campaign manager Velda Bell said.
The campaign also robo-called every registered voter in the ward shortly before election day. Barry won by 2,700 votes amid light turnout.
Barry is fortunate Robert Arkow lives on the opposite side of the country. The California resident filed a complaint in 1998 against a gubernatorial candidate who left recorded messages on his answering machine.
The Federal Communications Commission found in Arkow's favor, ruling that Republican candidate Dan Lungren did not identify himself properly.
Campaigning for Congress this year, Lungren used robo calls to notify voters of a last-minute endorsement by a popular talk radio host just before the March primary and will probably use them again down the stretch, campaign officials said.
"Without the ability to deliver that very late endorsement to people ... we'd probably wouldn't have won" the primary, said Johnson, the Republican media consultant.
Arkow won't be hearing from Lungren this year as he lives far from the Northern California district where Lungren is running.
But Arkow has girded himself anyhow: His answering machine warns that politicians who leave a prerecorded message will be billed a $500 storage fee.
"As consumers, we need to fight back," he said. "If they expect everybody else to follow the rules they should too."
Research by Yale University professor Donald Green has found that robo calls don't have any measurable effect on voter turnout, while personal calls can generate one extra vote for every 20 to 50 calls.
"Overall there's a sense of annoyance for people who call in an uninvited way," Green said. "The question is whether this annoyance makes telemarketing calls ineffective."
Campaigns are unlikely to ponder that question as they spend the last of their money.
One of the major parties is booking up dozens of call centers around the country for Election Day, said telemarketing consultant Robert Kaiser. Those who do not show up to vote will get reminder calls over the course of the day, he said.
If some voters find that annoying, that is a risk the party is willing to take, said Kaiser, who declined to name the party.
"If we upset five of them to get 500, well, we upset five to get 500," he said.