Campaigns show no sign of easing up on robocalls for votes

Annoying (or ineffective) as they might be, political robocalls still a familiar tactic

October 27, 2010|By Julie Bykowicz, The Baltimore Sun

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."

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