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Political robocall annoyance moves to cell phones

With Election Day here, take a moment to celebrate temporary relief from the robocall.

Campaigns around the state turn to the quick, cheap outreach to prod voters to the polls. You've heard them: "(pause) Hello, this is So-And-So, and I'm calling to urge you to join me in supporting Blah-De-Blah." Good for you if the message got that far before you hung up.

It may only be worse the next election cycle. As cell phones displace landlines in a quarter of American households, robocalls aren't just for the dinner table anymore.

Especially if your cell phone is your primary number — the one you used, say, on your voter registration form — you may have been interrupted by a political message during a meeting or running errands.

"Whether you vote early this weekend, or on Election Day, vote Yes on amendments 5 and 6. …"

That's even though the Federal Communications Commission says it's illegal. The Telephone Consumer Protection Act doesn't allow auto-dialed or prerecorded phone calls to cell phones without permission — even from politicians. Robocallers are supposed to weed those numbers from databases.

There's no such prohibition for landlines, even if you're on the national do-not-call list. The Federal Trade Commission exempts political calls from its telemarketing rules. So voters this week heard Robert Wexler, Al Lawson, Bill Clinton, Al Sharpton and Bob Dole, all stumping for candidates in living rooms and kitchens across the state.

"When the far-right-wing party bosses passed a bill to punish teachers and harm public education, one man said no and vetoed it. …"

"There's not a heck of a lot you can do about this issue," said Shaun Dakin, a former Democratic phone bank volunteer who's trying to do something about it.

Dakin, 44, founded the National Political Do Not Contact Registry at StopPoliticalCalls.org. More than 200,000 people have added their names to his database, which he communicates with political campaigns — which often ignore it.

He hopes to convince campaigns that the calls irritate voters for little or no payoff.

"The facts are, nobody really listens to them, they annoy people — they really don't work," he said.

So why are campaigns' robocall addictions getting worse? (By 2008, they were the top campaign outreach, according to the Pew Research Center.)

One, the calls are quick. Charlie Justice, a St. Petersburg Democrat running against U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young, used a robocall Monday to answer a mailing from Young that he thought "distorted the truth."

"It's the only way we had time to respond," he said.

Plus, it's cheap.

"It costs pennies," said Steve Pearson, who worked on John McCain's presidential campaign and is a consultant on new media. "Even if it doesn't work, at that level of expense, it's hard for a campaign manager to stand up and say, 'We're absolutely not going to do it.' "

David Custin, a political consultant in Miami who usually works for Republicans, bristles at the idea that campaigns should stop just because voters may find the calls annoying.

"If a certain means of communication is a nuisance, they all are," he said, citing rampant TV ads and a flood of mailers. "A consultant's job is to use every means to get a message to a voter."

It's getting easier to harvest cell numbers, by cross-matching voter registration data with other information on the Web, such as social networking profiles. In September, Pearson saw a news release from a polling firm offering to sell voter records with cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses attached so campaigns could use an e-mail-to-text service.

"It caught my attention," he said. "That's new."

The rush to reach voters on their cell phones will only speed up in 2012, Pearson projects.

It's voters who wish it would slow down.

In Jacksonville on Monday, just outside the Country Cabin Restaurant where Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink stopped for breakfast, a man groused.

"If Ms. Sink wants my support, she can pass a bill that says they can't call me 10 hours a day," said Glenn Shelton, 55, a Republican. "It's just ridiculous. I don't want to answer the phone 45 times from dinner to 9 o'clock."

Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas and Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.

Political robocall annoyance moves to cell phones 11/01/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 11:21pm]
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