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These political calls aren't just annoying

Recorded messages are illegal if not preceded by a live voice. But that law isn't enforced.

January 20, 2008|David Colker | Times Staff Writer

If you're lonely for phone calls, this is a good time to live in California -- the primary election is just around the corner.

The Feb. 5 election probably will bring a barrage of recorded calls -- nicknamed robocalls -- to voter homes, not only from candidates and the celebrities who support them but also concerning ballot propositions.

The calls can be so annoying, you might wish there was a law against them.

There is.

"It's just not enforced," said William Raney, attorney for the American Assn. of Political Consultants.

That law, under the California Public Utilities Code, states that an unsolicited, recorded call must be preceded by "an unrecorded, natural voice." In other words, a live human.

The person has to "state the nature of the call" and seek consent before the message can be played.

There are a few exceptions, including recorded calls from law enforcement agencies and fire departments to warn of an emergency. And businesses can make the recorded calls if they have an established relationship with the person being called.

But there is no blanket exception for political campaigns.

"The California code is very clear," said Barbara O'Connor, of the Institute for the Study of Politics and Media at Cal State Sacramento. Even so, she got numerous recorded calls during recent elections. If these types of calls were preceded by a request to play them, she doesn't think many would get through.

"I think consumers would welcome not getting calls from Bill or Hillary or Rudy," O'Connor said.

The state Public Utilities Commission is in charge of enforcing the code. In a statement, the agency confirmed that a political campaign could make recorded calls provided it adhered to the rules.

The agency went further in a 2004 decision, stating that political campaigns had to follow its regulations "just like any other telemarketing enterprise."

PUC officials didn't respond to requests for an interview on the law's enforcement.

Several other states have laws on the books regulating robocalls.

New Hampshire, with the first primary in the nation, prohibits recorded political calls to numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, the hugely popular program that has greatly curbed unsolicited telemarketing calls.

In November, after a complaint was registered with the state attorney general's office, the National Republican Congressional Committee said it would no longer make recorded calls to numbers on the Do Not Call list in New Hampshire. The issue flared up again just before the state primary in January when some people on the registry said they had gotten recorded calls from Barack Obama's campaign.

A Pew Research Center survey found that about 70% of voters in that state had received campaign robocalls. That was as of November, more than a month before the primary.

The federal Do Not Call list imposes no restrictions on political calls. This was done at least partly because of free speech guarantees. But that hasn't stopped some states from putting their own conditions on political calls.

"Take loud rock," Raney said. "Sure it's speech and sure it's protected, but cities can regulate it."

Indiana has been one of the most aggressive states in clamping down on recorded political calls. Like California, its law requires the granting of permission before a recording can be played. Two political groups were charged with violating the law in the wake of a highly contentious congressional race in 2006. Both cases are pending.

Robocalls are unlikely to go away any time soon. Politicians love them.

"Every Congress member knows that this is just an amazing way to contact constituents," Raney said.

The political consultant group he represents has advocated for a federal, uniform system to supplant the numerous state laws.

"The country is not served by a patchwork quilt of laws," he said.

But Raney knows that robocalls are far from beloved, especially when they are repetitive or from a source that is less than apparent.

"My client's purpose is to include measures like frequency restrictions and caller ID to make sure the calls are legitimate, not abusive," he said.

O'Connor thinks a national policy eventually will be instituted. "There will be a federal directive at some point but not in an election year. You won't get commissioners lining up for that. It would be suicidal."

Shaun Dakin, a marketer and longtime campaign volunteer, thinks there's another way.

He's had firsthand experience at making unsolicited calls on behalf of candidates.

"People were angry to get the calls," Dakin said. "They would say, 'Who the hell are you?' 'I thought I was on the Do Not Call list.' 'How did you get my number?'

"I realized we were doing more harm than good."

In October, he started the nonprofit National Political Do Not Call Registry, which seeks to curb the calls. It has no force of law -- Dakin ultimately plans to ask candidates to pledge not to call listed numbers.

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