Campaigns show no sign of easing up on robocalls for votes
Oct 28, 2010 (The Baltimore Sun - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
President Barack Obama apologizes for the bother, but he'd really like you to vote for Democratic Rep. Frank Kratovil.
Former Maryland first lady Kendel Ehrlich politely asks for your support of her husband, Republican Robert. L. Ehrlich Jr.
Think of it as auditory spam: With less than a week to go until Election Day, robocalls are peaking. The automated voices of Gov. Martin O'Malley and Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown, as well as Ehrlich and running mate Mary Kane, should be familiar by now. That is, if you're answering your telephone.
Max Rash isn't. A 20-year-old Republican in Bel Air, Rash says he has stopped picking up his home phone between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. That's after receiving something like 20 phone calls in a week, all right at dinner time. Many, he says, were from groups promoting O'Malley by attacking Ehrlich.
"I think it's absolutely bizarre that politicians would spend money that way," Rash said. (Memo to the campaigns: You can cross this one off your lists. He voted early for Ehrlich.)
Voters are annoyed by them, politicians don't like to talk about them and there's no evidence that they work. Still, the campaigns show no sign of easing up on automated calls, a cheap way to communicate endorsements, advertise events or encourage voters to hit the polls.
In Maryland, the calls began months ago. Voters in the 1st Congressional District, where Kratovil faces a tough challenge from Republican state Sen. Andy Harris, were flooded earlier this year with GOP calls on Obama's health care overhaul.
In September, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin recorded an electronic message urging voters to choose newcomer Brian Murphy in the Republican gubernatorial primary.
The calls don't always hit their mark. Kay Cone, a "very liberal" Democrat in Westminster, said she was shocked to pick up the phone last week and hear a message from the conservative group Americans for Prosperity inviting her to a tea party rally at a nearby park.
"I was like, 'Are you serious?'" the 20-year-old said.
What's most frustrating, some call recipients say, is confusion over the National Do Not Call Registry. Including your number on that list won't protect you from politicians: They exempted themselves.
Shaun Dakin is trying to close that loophole. Three years ago, he launched the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, which he says now contains about 200,000 people -- including about 4,000 from Maryland -- who pay a fee to join. Dakin provides the list for free to candidates. Only 16, none of them from Maryland, have wanted it.
Robocallers generate their lists from databases that identify voters by age, party affiliation, location and whether the person has requested an absentee ballot, among other criteria.
Attempts to reach several firms that make the calls, including FLS Connect, which Ehrlich uses, and Switchboard Communications, which O'Malley has hired, were not successful Wednesday.
Donna Spicer, a community activist in Loch Raven, said she gets a double dose of robocalls because she is a Democrat and her husband is a Republican.
"They're driving me nuts ... we're getting calls from everyone," she said Wednesday, moments after receiving an automated call from two-time GOP gubernatorial nominee Ellen R. Sauerbrey urging her to vote for Dee Hodges, a Baltimore County state Senate hopeful.
Spicer said she doesn't even live in Hodges' district.
"These people have no clue," she said.
Dan McDermott, a 52-year-old Democrat in Easton, finds the calls rather amusing. He said he's getting about one every other day. His 80-year-old mother receives as many as five per day.
"To me they're funny," he said. He particularly enjoyed one recorded last week on his answering machine. It was Obama, asking him to vote for Kratovil.
"He began by saying he was sorry for interrupting me," McDermott said. "I'm a busy man! Then again, it is the president."
A Baltimore man wrote The Sun earlier this month to advise O'Malley to stop robocontacting him. Ehrlich wasn't doing that, he wrote.
"As a voting independent, I suggest that discretion is the better part of valor," Owen Cummings wrote in a letter published Oct. 9.
Since then, he said Wednesday, "the calls have pretty well dried up." When he wrote the letter, he was getting about one a day, including many from the AFL-CIO promoting O'Malley. As a musician for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, Cummings, 59, is a member of the union.
Cummings said he'd vote for Ehrlich in part because of the onslaught of O'Malley robocalls.
"They're intrusive and a waste of my time and energy," he said. "I don't call people at their homes to fill their ears with my politics."
Dakin, creator of the anti-robocall list and its companion website, stoppoliticalcalls.org, discovered how much the practice annoyed people when he worked on the 2004 presidential campaign of Sen. John Kerry and the 2006 Senate campaign of Jim Webb. The Democrat quit his job at Laureate in Baltimore and launched a nonpartisan, nonprofit group to research robocalls and advocate for the people on the receiving end.
He testified on Capitol Hill about the need for better disclosure within the automated calls and the ability for people to opt out, as they do with telemarketing calls. Those ideas have yet to gain traction among lawmakers.
Dakin said candidates rely on robocalls because they're cheap -- as little as a quarter-cent per call in an average-size congressional district -- and because "it's what they know. It's what they've always done."
Yet there's no evidence that they work, and research by Yale professors has shown that they don't, Dakin said.
"What you hear now is, 'I don't even answer my phone anymore,'" said state Sen. James Brochin, a Baltimore County Democrat who speaks with voters every day by knocking on doors. Brochin said he used robocalls eight years ago when he first ran for office but abandoned the practice last election.
"I just heard too many complaints about them," he said. "The theory was that they worked, but I think the tide has changed. Now people are just annoyed."
Marylanders fare better than residents elsewhere. Solidly Democratic, it's not a battleground state in the presidential election, and hot legislative contests are few and far between. Maryland seems to have sidestepped the nastiest kinds of robocalls this fall. Some that have gained national attention amount to rumor-mongering and name-calling.
State Elections Administrator Linda Lamone said Maryland has no statute regulating the use of automated political calls. The federal Telephone Consumer Protection Act bars robocalls after 9 p.m. Federal law also requires the call to include information about who has recorded it.
States can sue violators on behalf of their residents. Penalties range from $500 to $1,500 per call.
Campaigns are reluctant to share their robocalling strategies.
Although residents of Kratovil's district have reported receiving numerous robocalls that seem to be from both candidates, Kratovil's spokeswoman, Jessica Klonsky, said the campaign doesn't have any out right now. Harris' campaign could not be reached Wednesday.
"When we do have them out, they echo our campaign theme that Kratovil has a proven record of independent leadership," Klonsky said.
O'Malley is using automated calls to alert residents to events in their area, campaign manager Tom Russell said.
"We are not sending out a bunch of calls pushing a message," he said. "Those are the ones that are annoying: 'Vote for so and so because of such and such.'"
Russell said the campaign alerted voters to rallies with Obama in Bowie and former President Bill Clinton in Federal Hill this month.
"We've found the calls to be very effective and good at alerting people," he said. "It's another way for us to make sure people are informed."
Ehrlich has used robocalls mainly to remind voters to turn in their absentee ballots, spokesman Henry Fawell said.
"They are a quick and efficient way to get your message out," Fawell said. "But there's a certain saturation point where they could start to work against you. You've got to strike the right balance."
Both Ehrlich and O'Malley aides say more robocalls are likely to be in the mix in the final days of the campaign. But relief is coming soon: Nov. 3, the day after the election.
Baltimore Sun reporters Arthur Hirsch and Paul West contributed to this article.
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