There are reports from at least seven states of voters being harassed by multiple phone calls with recorded messages - "robocalls" - that appear to be a devious manipulation of voter's pre-election advertisement overload. A typical example was described in Pennsylvania's hotly contested 6th Congressional District, in the Philadelphia suburbs, where incumbent Republican Jim Gerlach is locked in a statistical dead heat with challenger Lois Murphy. The calls begin by offering "important information about Lois Murphy," leading voters to assume the call is from her campaign. Most recipients slam down the phone before finding out otherwise - and then call to complain.
A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist did some researching and found that in fact the calls were being paid for by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which spent over $21,000 in the past week alone on anti-Murphy phone bank expenses. NRCC spokesman Ed Petru, readily admitted the scheme, noting that they wouldn't be spending money on robocalls if they weren't working. He added, no doubt with a straight face, "We don't think there's such a thing as an overinformed voter."
Similar "overinforming" of voters has been reported in Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York, Kansas, Florida, and California. Political phone calls are exempt from the "Do Not Call" Registry, but at least one state - New Hampshire - amended the federal law to include campaign calls, leading to an inquiry from the state's attorney general.
In all cases, the robocall expenditures are independent of the individual campaigns, giving candidates deniability. This allows Rep. Charles Bass (R-NH) the morally superior position of disavowing any responsibility "I've heard of them, but it has nothing to do with me or my campaign. It's an independent expenditure." According to WMUR.com, calls in his district begin by telling the voter that the call had some information about Paul Hodes, the Democratic challenger for the 2nd Congressional District. After a few seconds, the ad turns on the attack. It isn't until the end that you find out it was sponsored by the Republican National Congressional Committee.
Calls received in Connecticut's 2nd District, where Rob Simmons is battling for his seat against Democratic challenger Diane Farrell, begin "Diane Farrell has some information for you," before pausing, waiting for annoyed people to hang up, and then delivers a negative message about Farrell. According to reports, the call has hit some people as much as 6 times, and at 5 - 6am as well. Presumably, the intent is to annoy people and stick Farrell with the negative name ID as somebody who keeps robo-calling them.
The calls have apparently already had an affect on genuine phone banks, who have reported that calls are often greeted with hostility. The value of phone banking has diminished in recent years, with the glut of telemarketing calls that led to the federal "Do Not Call" registry. One volunteer mused that it was so much easier to persuade someone to hate you than the like you with a telemarketing call. But if you can devise a way to use phone calls to make voters angry at your opponent by deceiving them into thinking the opponent made the call - well, then it starts to be worth it.
Unlike love and war, all is not fair in politics. Voters should recognize the values that such deceptive practices reveal. Whether or not they are legal (and I'm dubious), these calls are reprehensible and a diservice to the citizens that these candidates desire to serve.
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