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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

A charity with ties to Hillary Clinton has gotten in trouble for what appeared to be illegal robo-calls in North Carolina. That states' presidential primary is this Tuesday. The group Women's Voices Women Vote, says its goal is simply to register single women to vote.

NPR's Peter Overby explains.

PETER OVERBY: Last week this automated robo-call went out in North Carolina.

(Soundbite of robo-call)

ROBO-CALL: 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.

OVERBY: But the deadline to register for the primary had already passed and the call went to many registered voters, people who were expecting to vote in the presidential primary next Tuesday. The call and follow-up mailings made many wonder whether they were registered for the primary or not.

This sounds like a classic example of voter suppression - sowing confusion and driving down turn-out. And these calls seem to be aimed at African-American communities, places where Barack Obama is expected to win easily.

The group behind the calls is Women's Voices Women Vote. It's a 501(c)(3) charity, and the robo-calls seem completely at odds with the group's usual, upbeat message. Take this public service announcement. Julia Louis-Dreyfus strolls thru a replica of the Oval Office, fantasizing about women electing a woman president.

Ms. JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS (Actor): Come on. Who do you want in here? You decide.

Unidentified Woman: To register, go to WVWV.org.

OVERBY: Women's Voices Women Vote did not make anyone available for comment on this story yesterday or today. Will Evans of the Center for Investigative Reporting, who collaborated in reporting this piece, found some Obama backers among the Women's Voices leadership. But the group mostly has ties to Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

Founder Page Gardner worked in 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 them.

Mr. CHRIS KROMM (Institute for Southern Studies): That's all established. We can't show that there's any formal or direct connection...

OVERBY: This is Chris Kromm, director of the Institute for Southern Studies, in Durham, North Carolina. The institute got complaints about the robo-calls. Investigating those complaints led them to Women's Voices. The institute turned up other complaints about the group too, in Florida, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and four other states. The Virginia State Police investigated robo-calls just before that state's primary. Again, Chris Kromm.

Mr. KROMM: What we have here is at least five months of a deceptive tactic, illegal in many states, and each time this group is criticized for this activity, they apologize for the confusion.

OVERBY: Meanwhile, the North Carolina Attorney General says the robo-calls are illegal. State law requires that automated phone calls identify the sponsoring group and give the recipient a way to reach them. The "Lamont Williams" call did neither. Democracy North Carolina, a fair elections group, is working with Women's Voices to pull the 276,000 mailers out of the postal stream.

Just a week ago, Page Gardner wrote to the North Carolina Elections board, letting them know about the calls and the mailing. She noted that Women's Voices would be raising the voter registration question just before the primary. She called it an unfortunate coincidence and said she hoped it wouldn't be confusing.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

SIEGEL: If you've received strange robo-calls or have been contacted by so-called push polls, we'd like to hear about it. You can tell us about your experience at our Web site, npr.org/elections.

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