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First Amendment vs. final straw: Can we stop those annoying political 'robocalls'? Should we?

MOST OF THE big names in local politics - Michael Nutter, Allyson Schwartz, Ed Rendell - were working the phones in last month's primary election.

Gladys Cooper, who lives in Center City, estimates that she received 30 or 40l robocalls before the primary election in May. She wasn’t as happy about them as she looks. She hung up on most. (James Heaney / Staff Photographer)
Gladys Cooper, who lives in Center City, estimates that she received 30 or 40l robocalls before the primary election in May. She wasn’t as happy about them as she looks. She hung up on most. (James Heaney / Staff Photographer)Read more

MOST OF THE big names in local politics - Michael Nutter, Allyson Schwartz, Ed Rendell - were working the phones in last month's primary election.

Gladys Cooper, 78, of Center City, heard from all of them, usually more than once, in prerecorded political announcements known as "robocalls." She estimates that she got 30 or 40 such calls. And, by the end, she was more than annoyed.

"You'd look on the caller ID and you couldn't see who was calling," she said. "You'd pick it up and it would be a recording. I always hung up the phone. I didn't want to listen, if they were rude enough to interrupt my time."

Cooper said that the only nonrecorded call she received was from Brett Mandel, a contender for city controller. "It was a human being on the phone," said Cooper, a retired life-insurance-brokerage manager. "I'm not sure it was Brett Mandel, but it was somebody who could answer my questions."

Cooper is not alone.

A number of voters are beginning to protest the unsolicited, recorded calls that bombard their homes in the months before primary and general elections.

Whether it's the voice of Hillary Clinton seeking support for Barack Obama, John McCain pitching himself, Mayor Nutter endorsing a candidate for district attorney or Ed Rendell promoting a judicial candidate whom voters never heard of, some people still regard their homes as their castles, and the political robocall as someone catapulting across the moat.

Pennsylvania, like most other states, has set up a do-not-call program that allows residential phone customers to protect themselves from automated commercial calls by putting themselves on a do-not-call list. Telemarketing companies that ignore the list face enforcement by the state attorney general.

But those do-not-call rules don't apply to political calls. The Legislature, when they set up the program, exempted political robocalls.

Some political strategists view the robocall as one of the most valuable tools they have. At roughly 5 cents a call, they're considered way cheaper than TV or radio ads. They can be focused on specific geographic areas and households whose residents are considered likely to vote.

And the same thing that makes the calls obnoxious to some voters makes them attractive to politicians: That ringing telephone is difficult to ignore.

Surveys by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press showed that, nationwide, the number of people reporting telephone robocalls roughly doubled between the 2004 and 2008 election cycles, making the prerecorded call the second most-common form of campaign contact, after direct mail.

The volume is more intense in battleground states like Pennsylvania.

Are the calls effective? It's hard to say.

But nearly two-thirds of the respondents to a Pew survey reported that they hang up on robocalls without listening. Better than one of every 10 voters said that the calls made them angry.

One of the robocalls that bothered Cooper was from Mayor Nutter, endorsing former Councilman Dan McElhatton for district attorney.

It was a late-inning endorsement, the Friday before the election, and limited to the robocall itself - no mayoral press conference, news release or public announcement, just Nutter praising McElhatton for 30 seconds and permitting McElhatton to pipe the message into thousands of homes via the telephone.

McElhatton had no real choice about how to use it: It was either go with Nutter's robocall, or ignore the endorsement that McElhatton had been coveting all year.

"We really weren't trying to pester people or harass them, but to get information to them that we thought was important," said McElhatton's campaign manager, Anthony Ingargiola.

After sending Nutter's message to about 250,000 homes, Ingargiola said, McElhatton's campaign received about 10 complaints.

"We're sorry if some people were upset," he said, "but the alternative for us was spending money on television, which we couldn't afford to do. This is the most effective way to do this, and if people don't like the call, they can just hang up. One second and the call is over."

Not quite, according to Cooper. Hanging up would stop the ringing, she said, but if she picked up the telephone receiver again, 10 or 15 seconds later, she'd hear the political message, tying up the phone line until it ran its course. "What if I had an emergency and needed to make a call?" she asked.

In Virginia, one activist became riled enough about unwanted robocalls that he started a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization - Citizens for Civil Discourse - seeking to have political calls covered by do-not-call registries.

"We're not advocating for banning robocalls, or taking away freedom of speech," said Shaun Dakin, the founder of the organization. "But we do think the voter should have a chance to opt out."

In two years, about 85,000 people have joined the group through its Web site, Dakin said. Most joined for free, but this year he initiated a membership fee ($4.99 a year, or $25 for life).

Dakin, 43, a Democrat with a background in marketing, says that he believes that excessive use of robocalls is making them counterproductive.

He recalls quitting his job in 2004 to volunteer for John Kerry's presidential campaign. The week before the general election, he was bused to Cleveland with other volunteers to staff a phone bank.

"People in Ohio had already gotten a lot of calls," Dakin said. "Five to seven days out [from the election], they were just really angry. There was a lot of profanity. People would say, 'Are you calling for Kerry? Then I'm voting for Bush.' A lot of us were sitting in an office in downtown Cleveland, and we said to each other, 'Maybe we're doing more harm than good.' "

One Pennsylvania lawmaker who's been trying to extend the do-not-call program to political calls is state Rep. Michael P. McGeehan, of Northeast Philadelphia.

McGeehan, a Democrat, said that his effort was spurred by an anonymous robocall that surfaced in a 2006 congressional campaign.

"You pick up the phone and someone is crying hysterically, you fear that a loved one has been involved in something tragic - and then it veers into something about abortion," McGeehan said. "I thought that was particularly obnoxious. . . . It's long past time to give citizens a choice about receiving these types of calls."

Both of McGeehan's attempts to provide an opt-out for voters have died in committee.

"I sure as heck don't want to annoy my voters," said Philadelphia Rep. Babette Josephs, chairwoman of the state House panel that normally handles election-related legislation.

"But I think there's a big First Amendment problem here," said Josephs, a Democrat. "If I'm a challenger running against an incumbent, I don't want this incumbent moving legislation that makes it more difficult to run against the incumbent."

McElhatton finished third in a five-way race to become the Democratic candidate for D.A., but the impact of Nutter's last-minute robocalls can't be measured.

Several of McElhatton's opponents also used prerecorded messages. Both Seth Williams, who won the nomination, and Dan McCaffery, who finished second, spent significantly more than McElhatton and lined up more endorsements.

Williams' 43,672 votes represented nearly 42 percent of the Democrats casting ballots for D.A. But only one of every eight registered Democrats bothered to vote.

McElhatton said that he'd object to creation of a do-not-call list that would have made it even harder for him to publicize his campaign and Nutter's backing.

"But if it were established," he said, "people should have to go to the polls to get on the list."