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GOP senator introduces bill to ban political robocalls

Super PACs, 'dark money' groups would be added to "Do Not Call" registry.

Three days after conceding the loss of his U.S. Senate seat, Alaska Democrat Mark Begich may have hit on just the trick to make him the most popular lame duck ever.

On Nov. 20, the soon-to-be ex-senator introduced a bill that would allow voters to block robocalls from certain political organizations by adding super PACs and dark money groups (politically active non-profits that do not disclose donors) to the "Do Not Call Registry" maintained by theFederal Trade Commission.

The "Do Not Disturb Act of 2014" comes a little late for this year's voters, including many in Begich's state. But an analysis of data -- including filings due at the Federal Elections Commission at midnight -- using Sunlight's Real-Time Federal Campaign Finance tracker suggests that such a measure could put a serious crimp in the nation's gross political product.

Outside expenditure filings show that outside groups spent nearly $8 million dialing voters across the nation last year. Because of vagaries in how these calls are described in filings to the FEC, it's hard to say exactly how many of them were the types Begich would ban: automated "robocalls" or the "push-polls" (faux surveys that attempt to create favorable or -- more typically -- unfavorable impressions of candidates by the way questions are phrased). Still, we found more than $1 million worth of calls that were explicitly identified as "automated" or "robocalls."

The most targeted state: Iowa, home of one of this year's most competitive Senate races. No. 2 was Massachusetts, where a group called the Ninety Nine Percent spent more than $100,000 to make automated calls opposing Rep. Steve Lynch's bid in the Bay State's special Senate primary (his opponent, Ed Markey, won the election and the seat).

Looking more broadly at phone calls to voters (which may or may not be robocalls), the groups paying for the most were pro-environmentalist organizations: The League of Conservation Voters and NextGen. They were followed by Ending Spending, a conservative group whose political action committee and non-profit combined to spend more than $673,000 calling voters.

In Alaska, the amounts were smaller; but it's perhaps easy to understand how roughly $300,000 worth of phone calls could get irksome in a sparsely populated state where 285,449 people cast ballots on Nov. 4. It was all part of a money blitz that saw outside groups dump more than $40 million into theAlaska Senate race (compared to $17.2 million spent by the candidates, Begich and his victorious Republican opponent, Dan Sullivan).

"I heard from Alaskans all across the state during the campaign, and enough is enough," Begich said in a statement. "My bill will allow individuals to opt out of receiving these sorts of pestering phone calls from super PACs and similar groups."

Ironically, much of the "pestering" that Begich would ban actually occurred on his behalf. According to Sunlight's analysis the tally of phone calls by outside groups in Alaska was $56,121 spent making calls designed to help Sullivan (some of them against Begich), compared to $240,630 by groups backing the Democratic incumbent. Maybe this makes Begich the perfect messenger, in a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of way.

Absent a sudden groundswell to tack Begich's bill onto one of the handful of "must-pass" measures that Congress must pass before leaving for the holidays, it seems highly unlikely that the senator will be able to see his idea enacted before his term expires Jan. 3. But an aide said Begich will be seeking cosponsors (so far, there are none), who presumably could push the legislation in the new Congress.

There's evidence that it would be popular with voters. Mitchell Katz, an FTC spokesman on the Do Not Call registry, says it just covers calls from telemarketing sales companies. Political speech is viewed as being in a different category, one that's protected by the First Amendment.

But Katz says he gets plenty of calls from voters who think they should be immune from the political calls because they have registered their numbers with the FTC. "We get a lot of complaints every other year when it's October," he said.

Click here to see the complete list of phone call expenses we extracted from independent expenditure data. We've extracted all the identifiably telephone-related expenses of outside groups in the first sheet; a series of tabs allows you to see this broken down by state, committee and candidate. We've also done a breakout and similar breakdowns for robocalls.