The trouble with robo-calls

By Bill Lueders
Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Bill Lueders, Money and Politics Project Director.

Stevens Point columnist Bill Berry, writing just after Wisconsin’s recent presidential primary, called it perhaps the only thing our deeply divided nation can agree upon: “Robo-calls suck.”

He’s right. No one likes getting call after call on their home phone delivering pre-recorded messages, often attacks, on political candidates. It’s obnoxious. It makes people angry.

Berry proposed a remedy he found online: Press star-pound-zero (*#0), which “may disrupt the call.” Of course, so does hanging up. Others suggest pressing pound (#) can spur removal from a given call list. Do that a few dozen times and you might see a significant decline.

Currently, no federal laws prevent political robo-calls, says Shaun Dakin, head of the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, run by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Citizens for Civil Discourse.

“There’s nothing wrong with robo-calling as a concept,” Dakin says in an interview. “What we’re looking for is to give voters the right to opt out.” (At least two states, Indiana and Wyoming, prohibit political robo-calls, and other states have some restrictions.)

Dakin gets thousands of emails from people who hate robo-calls, some more than others: “You can’t imagine the wrath of a mother with a sleepy baby who was woken up during nap time.” Then there are night-shift workers who sleep during the day, and seniors whose phone is their lifeline to the medical community.

Moreover, he vents, political robo-calls “have a perfect record of never having worked.” He cites a raft of studies, including one published in 2008 by Yale professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber, which found that robo-calls are largely ineffective at getting voters to the polls.

But Dakin says the calls continue because “the last thing a campaign manager wants to be accused of is not doing everything possible to win.” Besides, robo-calls are cheap and fast: “You can record a robo-call at 9 o’clock in the morning and send it at 10 o’clock.”

The state Government Accountability Board is “not considering any policy initiatives to regulate robo-calls,” according to spokesman Reid Magney. Occasionally it looks into complaints about robo-calls that allegedly give bad information about when or where to vote.

“Sometimes we’re unable to identify exactly who is behind a robo-call,” Magney says.  Complaints about calls involving federal candidates are referred to federal officials.

The GAB’s website can track expenditures — for state campaigns only, not federal races — by “purpose.” Nearly $1.3 million has been spent since mid-2008 in Wisconsin on “Media – Phones / Robo Calls,” which includes human and automated calls. As these things go, that’s not a lot of money — until you consider that $1 million can buy tens of millions of robo-calls.

The state’s top call provider — used by Friends of Scott Walker and the Republican Party of Wisconsin, among others — is FLS Connect in St. Paul, Minn. The company, which has received $336,811 for calling people in Wisconsin over the past four years, did not respond to an interview request.

Neither did Advantage Inc. of Arlington, Va. ($277,309), The Shop Consulting of Madison ($47,526), and Campaign Now of Milwaukee ($35,222).

Apparently, the people who pester you with robo-calls at home don’t even like getting real-person calls at work.

But John Jameson, president and founder of Winning Connections in Washington, D.C., which has rung up $173,085 in Wisconsin “Phones / Robo Calls” business in recent years, mostly for legislative Democrats, was willing to talk. His view: robo-calls are “almost a total waste of money.”

You see, nearly all the calls made by Winning Connections involve live people. Although live calls cost about $1 each, compared to four or five cents for robo-calls, Jameson says they are a much better value. In fact, he thinks robo-calls are as likely to sour people as compel their vote. So why do campaigns continue to make them?

“There’s some very good salespeople out there,” Jameson says. And some very angry voters.

Bill Lueders is the Money and Politics Project director at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The project, a partnership of the Center and MapLight, is supported by the Open Society Institute.

The Center collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.

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