Phone tag

March 04, 2007

In the middle of dinner, the telephone rings. One's natural inclination is to answer. But what a lot of Marylanders discovered last fall is that the voice on the other end of the line may not even be alive. It's enough to make a person wish it were a salesman. At least then there would be some recourse - thanks to the national Do Not Call list - and besides, you could always give the interloper a piece of your mind.

But like a bad Twilight Zone episode, the folks behind last fall's flood of annoying phone calls found a way to mix the worst of two worlds, politics and recorded pitches, to produce (cue the escalating scary music) - the dreaded candidate robo-call. Now, lawmakers are looking into tossing that evil demon back to the ad agency hades whence it came.

Under legislation pending in the state Senate, it would be against the law to call a residential address with an automated dialing system featuring a recorded political message. The exceptions are few - it's fine for emergency purposes or if the caller has a business relationship with, or consent of, the person called. Violators could be fined $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for any additional offense.

That sounds great. Critics have seized on the bill as a violation of constitutional rights, but the proposal does no more damage to the First Amendment than restrictions on the size or placement of yard signs. A handful of states have banned political robo-calls and courts have not intervened. Politicians would still be able to call voters. They just wouldn't be able to dispatch R2-D2 or his equivalent to do their dirty work.

Besides, the law would actually be doing the politicians a favor. It's hard to believe anyone would vote for a candidate who robo-dialed them (particularly the repeat offenders). There are still plenty of ways for office-seekers to communicate. Automated calls were just about the most annoying form of advertising to plague the 2006 elections, mostly because a phone call can be so intrusive. The last thing the state needs is a redial in 2008.

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