MICHELE NORRIS, host:
If you've been getting a lot of automated political phone calls, you're not alone. Recorded political telephone calls now rival direct mail as the most popular way for campaigns and political groups to reach voters and most voters don't like them.
Well, help may be on the way. As NPR's Greg Allen reports, more than half the states are taking action to restrict what the campaign industry calls robo-calls.
GREG ALLEN: In the recent midterm election, nearly two-thirds of registered voters received robo-calls, that's according to a survey conducted by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In some areas, voters reported getting a dozen or more a day. Here's one many people received in Illinois' Sixth Congressional District.
(Soundbite of robo-call)
Unidentified Man: Hello. I'm calling with information about Tammy Duckworth. In a time when our Social Security is ever burdened, Tammy Duckworth supports an amnesty plan that will make it even worse. With 11 million illegal immigrants in our country...
ALLEN: That call captured and put on line by the Capitalfacts blog was not placed by the campaign of Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth but by the Republican Party. Duckworth lost her bid for Congress and so the negative robo-calls played a role.
Not all political robo-calls though are negative. They're also used in get-out-the-vote efforts targeting specific precincts or groups of voters. But their use - overuse - many say has prompted a flurry of bills in state legislatures across the country. In Florida, one such bill is sponsored by Representative Stan Jordan, a Republican from Jacksonville.
State Representative STAN JORDAN (Republican, Florida): With the amount of robo-calls or these computerized calls over the past few elections has got to the point - it's epidemic-level nuisance. And what we're saying in this bill is that if you're on the do-not-call list that even political activity comes under the do-not-call provision.
ALLEN: Under the Florida bill, only live political calls would be allowed. Florida's legislative session just wrapped up without passage of Jordan's bill. He's confident it will pass next year though in time for the general election. In Florida, one of the groups that's been fighting the restrictions on robo-calls is organized labor.
The AFL-CIO is working to include in the bill an exception that will allow it to continue using recorded calls to distribute information about issues and candidates to its members. Rich Templin is communications director.
Mr. RICH TEMPLIN (Communications Director, AFL-CIO): People chose to be on the federal do-not-call list because they didn't want to get sold, you know, (Unintelligible) while they're trying to eat dinner. They had no intention when they got on that list or at least we have no way of knowing their intention to ban all political messages.
ALLEN: Indiana is one of the states that already restricts political robo-calls with a law that requires a live operator obtain consent before the recorded message is played. Enforcing that law, last year Indiana's attorney general successfully sued and stopped a Virginia company, FreeEats, from making robo-calls in the state.
FreeEats has taken its case to federal appeals court. FreeEats attorney, Milo Cividanes, says the company doesn't oppose all restrictions just those that he feels unfairly target a new effective technology.
Mr. MILO CIVIDANES (Attorney, FreeEats): If the concerns are that they're getting calls at 2:00 in the morning that's something they can restrict. If the concerns are that they're getting calls that are deceptive that's something that also can be governed and regulated by the law. But if they're going at the core of the ability to use efficient, low-cost technology to interact and deliver political messages that is where they can run afoul of the law.
ALLEN: In its case, FreeEats says it's the U.S. not states which properly regulate interstate phone calls. A second and potentially even more far reaching argument is that as political speech, robo-calls are protected by the First Amendment. That's an argument that could ultimately determine the future of robo-calls, and FreeEats is promising to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary.
Greg Allen, NPR News.
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