Wisconsin could ban political robo-calls

Ever received a telephone message from Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or some celebrity urging you to vote for some candidate in a local election? Of course the former president or the actor didn’t actually dial the phone; the person just recorded a message, which was then broadcast to voters in a given locality.

Now, those political robo-calls could be banned in Wisconsin, if a proposed measure gaining momentum in the state legislature survives key votes.

The proposed ban on political robo-calls to people who have registered on do-not-call lists passed a key Senate committee in May, and a bipartisan group of 30 legislators are pushing for a Senate floor vote before the session ends. Under legislative rules, the bill wouldn’t require hearings in the state Assembly, meaning the lower chamber could take it up immediately after the upper chamber passes it.

Telemarketers are already prohibited from using automated calls to sell goods and services to people who register for state and federal do-not-call lists.

Political calls have long been exempted from do-not-call lists. And given that they cost only a few pennies per call, they are a quick and cheap way to communicate a message to targeted voters.

But voters hate them: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday that robo-calls have been the top complaint Wisconsin consumers make to the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection for eleven straight years.

But six states have moved to ban automated calls. Laws in Indiana, Minnesota and North Dakota have withstood court challenges alleging they violate free speech and interstate commerce clause rights under the Constitution, the Journal Sentinel reported. (That’s why automated polling firms like Public Policy Polling and Rasmussen rarely, if ever, conduct surveys in those states).

A companion bill would make Wisconsin’s do-not-call list permanent. Consumers currently have to re-register with the state every two years to keep themselves off solicitors’ radar screens.

Reid Wilson covers state politics and policy for the Washington Post's GovBeat blog. He's a former editor in chief of The Hotline, the premier tip sheet on campaigns and elections, and he's a complete political junkie.
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