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Ear to the Ground

Robocalls Confuse Voters

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Posted on Nov 4, 2008
Johnny 5
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(The Secret Money blog is a joint project of the Center for Investigative Reporting and National Public Radio.)

The Union of Politics and Telemarketing—What’s Not to Like?

Robocalls—those recorded, automatically dialed phone messages—have been lighting up phones everywhere the past few days. Nobody seems to like getting them. Some are innocuous—the standard fare of campaigns and candidates. But then there are underhanded, unaccountable calls meant to confuse voters.

For example, calls have been going out into Virginia and Pennsylvania telling people to vote tomorrow, on Nov. 5, according to Jonah Goldman, director of Election Protection at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. Goldman says he doesn’t know who’s responsible, but similar misleading messages are being distributed via email, FaceBook and flyers, often targeting young and minority voters.

A third kind of robocall comes from independent groups trying to influence your vote. The Republican Jewish Coalition, for example, is sending anti-Obama robocalls to Jewish voters. The call quotes Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) saying that Obama lacked the “political courage” to leave Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church. The RJC labels the United Church of Christ congregation “anti-Semitic” and “anti-American.” The call hammers home the point with this: “If Obama doesn’t have the courage to do the right thing here at home, can he stand up to dictators and tyrants who seek to do us harm? We should all be concerned about Barack Obama.”

The National Political Do Not Call Registry tracks all sorts of robocalls—and lets you report them.

Christina Perkins, of eastern Virginia, told us she got her first robocall last week, and was a bit taken aback. The call, she says, started out asking if she is a registered voter, without identifying who wanted to know. The second question, “Are you pro-life?” struck Perkins as “sort of out of left field.” 

She answered, “No,” to which the robocall replied by saying that Obama would “raise your taxes by almost $3,000.” Does that change your mind about Obama, the call asked? Perkins said, “No,” and the message concluded by saying the group that sponsored it was in support of John McCain. 

Perkins couldn’t remember the exact name of the group, but we traced it back to Christian conservative leader, one-time presidential hopeful and former Reagan advisor Gary Bauer.

Bauer, who heads Americans United to Preserve Marriage and the group American Values, hired ccAdvertising to do the calls in Virginia, said his spokeswoman, Kristi Hamrick. Hamrick said Bauer also ran some get-out-the-vote radio ads in battleground states. 

Hamrick said she wasn’t sure which Bauer organization paid for the robocalls but it appears to be Americans United to Preserve Marriage.

      In 2004, Americans United to Preserve Marriage ran ads attacking Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and a Democratic Senate candidate on gay marraige. The biggest donors for that effort were Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon, founders of the Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation. They’re also in the group of investors that bought the Seattle SuperSonics basketball team and turned them into the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Ward, a billionaire who now heads another oil and gas company, gave Bauer’s group an additional $50,000 at the end of last year.

The group also got $50,000 from developer Jeffrey Armour last year and another $50,000 from attorney Jeffrey Czech this August. Both Southern Californians, they each gave $1,000 to Bauer’s 2000 presidential campaign. Armour also gave $75,000 to the anti-gay marraige intiative on the California ballot. 

ccAdvertising, the firm hired by Bauer, has the capacity to make 3.5 million phone calls every day, and is operating in nearly every state on behalf of its clients, says chief operating officer Jason Flanary. Clients include Common Sense Issues and the Alaska Republican Party as well as McDonald’s and Starbucks.

Flanary and ccAdvertising’s president, Gabriel Joseph, spun off a separate political action committee in September, called Americans in Contact, which does pro-McCain robocalls. 

The calls ask voters their preference for president. If the voter says Obama, the robocall plays two “education components,” which say that Obama will raise taxes and received campaign contributions from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, according to Flanary. If the voter answers McCain, the call asks for donations to the PAC.  The goal, Flanary says, is to “identify conservatives around the country and to engage them in the political process.”

As for the Gary Bauer call, Christina Perkins says, “I was irritated, just because I would have liked to know up front who was calling. After the first question, it became immediately apparent there was an agenda that was being pushed, which is irritating. I have my number on the no-call list for a reason.”

Too bad. She’s now had several robocalls since that first one.

—By Will Evans, Center for Investigative Reporting.

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By simonhhh, November 5, 2008 at 7:21 pm Link to this comment

This should be a Federal Crime and Robo Calls outlawed as undemocratic….period

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By Y, November 4, 2008 at 7:04 pm Link to this comment
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Something as heinous as this should be a crime. Police and election officials should find the perps who were behind this and put their arses in the slammer. These people are a direct threat to our democracy, as much as terrorists.

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By Andrew, November 4, 2008 at 3:05 pm Link to this comment
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Speaking of misleading emails targeting young voters, early this morning someone hacked into the email account of my university’s provost’s office and sent a message to all the students telling us to vote on the 5th (we also happen to be in Virginia, by the way).  Fortunately it was corrected by about 8am, but it’s still… frustrating, to put it mildly.

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