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Political robocaller likely will be back

Jason Cato
| Monday, May 7, 2007

Part man. Part machine. Fully automated. The future of political campaigning might be coming back to a phone near you.

Robocalls, or automated campaign messages sent by or for politicians, are cheap and virtually guaranteed to continue to grow in popularity - unless state lawmakers across the country, including those in Pennsylvania, pass laws to squelch them.

Nearly two-thirds of registered voters nationwide received recorded telephone messages as the 2006 mid-term election came to a close, according to an analysis by Pew Internet & American Life Project. Only direct mail reached more voters, 71 percent, than robocalls, 64 percent.

Next most popular were live phone calls from campaign workers, received by 23 percent of voters.

"We're only going to see an increased use, unless it's regulated," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster. Pennsylvania voters could be spared from another round of robocalls, as Rep. Michael McGeehan, D-Philadelphia, has introduced a bill that essentially would ban automated political telephone messages. Six of the bill's 26 cosponsors are Republican.

Rep. David Levdansky, a Democrat from Forward Township, is one of the bill's supporters and believes it has a decent chance of passing.

First, he said, voters are growing tired of calls many perceive to be an invasion of privacy. Secondly, he believes many politicians are beginning to realize robocalls have a limited value.

"It's one thing to get a piece of mail you consider junk. You can toss it," Levdansky said. "But a telephone call is a bit more personally intrusive than other forms of marketing."

Six states prohibit automatic dialing devices from making political calls. Politicians in more than 20 states have proposed laws to ban or severely restrict robocalls.

Federal do-not-call lists do not apply to political telephone calls, even recorded ones. U.S. law, however, requires that the person, party or group responsible for the call clearly be identified at the beginning of the message and that a contact telephone number be provided at some point.

Ken Presutti, executive director of the Allegheny County Republican Committee, said using robocalls to spread false information through sly, attack campaigns is the wrong way to use the medium.

Robocalls are good marketing choices when used to spread a candidate's message, he said.

"I think we have to be careful that we don't limit it too much," Presutti said.

Abe Amoros, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party, said the use of robocalls definitely has increased during the past decade. Still, he said he isn't aware of any groundswell of voters demanding the automated messages be banned in the state.

"If you don't like it, a caller can hang up," Amoros said. "Just like with direct mail, you can just pitch it."

Unscrupulous marketing companies give the medium a bad name, but the price always will make it popular with politicians and political organizations, said Jerry Dorchuck, who provides automated calls through his Montgomery County company, Political Marketing International.

Costing about a nickel per call, prerecorded telephone messages are the cheapest option for getting political messages to the masses, Dorchuck said. Live calls and direct mail pieces can cost as much as 50 cents each, he said.

"Getting the message out is the ultimate goal for any politician," he said. "How else can you reach 100,000 voters for $4,000 or $5,000?"

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