Your phone rings, you pick it up, there’s a pause, then a message. It is that time of year again, crunch time in political campaigns when it is likely some politicians will start sending those pre-recorded calls, known as robo calls, asking for your vote on November 2nd.
In the race to fill the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat, both the Scott Brown and Martha Coakley camps used the automated calls in an attempt to get the vote out. But in many cases, it backfired. “Some people called me and said, ‘Smitty, if we get one more phone call, we’re going to vote against that candidate.’ They fill up their answering machines, it was so impersonal and so out of control,” says Smitty Pignatelli, a State Representative from Lenox, MA. He sponsored a bill that would change the way politicians can make robo calls.
“The bottom line is, we said if you’re going to do a robo call, you need to make a live introduction, and I have to say yes, I will accept a robo call for 30 seconds for a candidate. That’s what the legislations was, I still think it’s good, it’s not going anywhere this session, but I’ll talk to my colleagues to see if we want to re-file it next session,” Rep. Pignatelli says.
Yes, the representative and his co-sponsors got some resistance, ultimately stopping the bill from being passed. Just last year, the federal government put new rules in effect that would prohibit the use of robo calls by businesses, unless you gave previous consent, though political robo calls, were exempt.
So if so many voters are displeased with these calls, why are politicians still using robo calls? “It works, we wouldn’t do it if it didn’t work,” says Jim Spencer, owner of The Campaign Network who has been a political campaign consultant for more than 30 years. Spencer says robo calls are not only effective in getting a candidate’s name out there, but they don’t put a big dent in a political budget, costing just pennies per call.
“You’re getting right close to election day, and you’re thinking to yourself, who you’re going to vote for, so receiving a robo call from a person, might help you decide, maybe even more importantly, it might help getting an endorsement robo call from somebody, you know that you respect, saying that I’m going to vote for this person,” Spencer says. But don’t hold your breath waiting for pols to block those political robo call from coming to a phone near you, according to Spencer, “in my opinion, I don’t think it would ever pass constitutional muster to say that you can not call someone on the telephone around someone running for office, it’s very much a free speech issue.”
So in the countdown to the election, don’t be surprised if your phone starts ringing a little more often, the beauty of a robo call, there’s no one to offend on the other line, if you hang up.