"Hello. This is Lamont Williams. In the next few days, you will receive a voter-registration packet in the mail. All you need to do is fill it out, sign it, date and return your application. Then, you will be able to vote and make your voice heard. Please return your registration form when it arrives. Thank you."
Thousands of North Carolina residents answered their telephones last week to hear this message, delivered in a deep, soothing voice:
"Hello. This is Lamont Williams. In the next few days, you will receive a voter registration packet in the mail. All you need to do is fill it out, sign it, date and return the application. Then you will be able to vote and make your voice heard. Please return your registration form when it arrives. Thank you."
In fact, the deadline to register for the May 6 Democratic presidential primary had already passed. The robocall went to many registered voters who were expecting to vote that day. The call and follow-up mailings left many wondering whether they were registered for the primary or not.
This sounds like a classic example of voter suppression — sowing confusion in order to drive down turn-out. The calls seemed to be aimed at African-American communities, places where Illinois Sen. Barack Obama is expected to run well ahead of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton.
But the group behind the calls isn't partisan Republican or ideologically conservative. It's Women's Voices Women Vote, a 501(c)(3) charity that states its mission as registering single women to vote. The robocalls seem completely at odds with the group's usual, upbeat message. In one of the group's public service announcements, the actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus strolls thru a replica of the Oval Office and fantasizes about women electing a woman president (herself, actually, not Clinton; Louis-Dreyfus is actually supporting Obama).
Women's Voices, Women Vote did not make anyone available for comment on Wednesday or Thursday.
Just a week ago, the group's founder, Page Gardner, contacted the North Carolina Board of Elections to let them know about the mailing. She noted that the Women's Voices packet, which she said was intended to boost registration in general, would arrive in mailboxes just before the primary. Gardner wrote: "We hope this unfortunate coincidence in timing does not lead to any confusion or aggravation for either your state's voters or registrars."
Group's Ties to the Democratic Candidates
Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting , who collaborated in reporting this story, found some Obama backers among the Women's Voices leadership, but the group mostly has ties to Clinton and her campaign. Gardner worked on former President Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign. Board member John Podesta was President Clinton's chief-of-staff. Maggie Williams, Hillary Clinton's campaign manager, used to be on the Women's Voices leadership team and did consulting work for the group.
Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, in Durham, N.C., says there's no hard evidence that the robocalls were meant to suppress the pro-Obama vote. "We can't show that there's any formal or direct connection," he says.
Investigating the Origin of the Robocalls
The Institute for Southern Studies began investigating after receiving complaints about the robocalls. The institute traced the calls to Women's Voices, which has acknowledged responsibility.
The Institute turned up other complaints about the group as well, in Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia and Wisconsin. A "Lamont Williams" robocall similar to North Carolina's ran in Ohio last fall. In Virginia, robocalls days before the February primary caused voters to flood the board of elections with phone calls, in turn triggering an investigation by the state police.
Kromm says this shows at least five months of a "deceptive tactic, illegal in many states." He notes, "Each time this group is criticized for this activity, they apologize for the confusion."
The North Carolina attorney general says the robocalls are illegal. State law requires that automated phone calls identify the sponsoring group and give the recipient a phone number or other means of contacting the group. The Lamont Williams call did neither.
Gardner told the North Carolina elections board that the follow-up mailing would go to 276,118 women. Now, the fair-elections group Democracy North Carolina is working with Women's Voices to pull back as many of those mailers as possible.
After six days of silence, Page Gardner, president of Women's Voices, Women Vote, defended the group and its voter registration activities in an interview with NPR on May 6.
Gardner said that Women's Voices registered 26,000 North Carolinians in time to vote in the primary. She said African-Americans make up 57 percent of all those registered by the group in the state this election cycle.
The anonymous robo-call that ignited the controversy in North Carolina was produced in 2006 and has been used regularly since then, she said. Lamont Williams is the voice-over artist who recorded it.
Robo-calls are one step in the Women's Voices protocol for registering voters: First, a letter to the state elections board, warning of a likely surge in registration applications; second, press releases to news outlets; third, the robocalls, alerting targeted likely voters that a registration mailer is coming; and fourth, the mailer itself.
"We're very proud of what we do," Gardner said. "There were four ways we were trying to tell people what we do. Three out of the four included our name. One did not."
She did not explain why the robo-calls did not identify Women's Voices, but said, "We are clearly looking at it, correcting it and looking forward."
Why did the robocall offend recipients in North Carolina, but not in other states where it was run? The run-up to the primary created "an operating environment the likes of which we had never seen before," Gardner said. "It's very heated, it's very intense, there are a lot of emotions."
The state attorney general is investigating the calls. The state chapter of the NAACP has filed a complaint as well.
When the controversy erupted, Women's Voices tried to pull back the followup mailers. The group says it had intended to mail 276,118 pieces and retrieved more than 178,000. It also postponed mailings in the five remaining primary states: West Virginia, Kentucky, Montana, Oregon and South Dakota.
Gardner said Women's Voices, Women Vote was launched after she and her husband, Ron Rosenblith, spent three years researching the reasons that unmarried women voted less than other demographic groups.
In 2006, Women's Voices paid Rosenblith's firm, Integral Resources, nearly $800,000 for phone services. Critics have questioned this as a potential conflict of interest. Gardner said it was "an arm's-length, commercially reasonable transaction" that ended in 2007.
Nonprofit's Contracts Called into Question
Charity watchdogs say the way the group Women's Voices Women Vote has spent its money on at least one contract raises red flags.
In 2006, the organization paid Integral Resources Inc. nearly $800,000 for phone services. That company's CEO and founder is Ron Rosenblith, who is married to Women's Voices president, Page Gardner. The contract represents 16 percent of the nonprofit's budget. The group is funded mostly through foundations and individual donations.
"I think it's a really big concern," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago. "It does give an appearance of a conflict of interest."
The question, he and other charity experts say, would be whether Integral Resources profited from its inside connections. Women's Voices did not make anyone available to comment.
The organization also paid several million dollars more on contracts with companies run by five additional members of the nonprofit's leadership team.
This would be troubling if those people had influence over the nonprofit's expenditures when the contracts were awarded, said Rick Cohen, former executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, now national correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly magazine.
"By going to companies that are related to members of the organization, it does create the image, if not the reality, of self-dealing," Cohen said of the Women's Voices contracts. "I think this is a concern for donors, a concern for state and federal regulators, and a concern to the public."