By Charles Babington and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 7, 2006
This year's heavy volume of automated political phone calls has infuriated countless voters and triggered sharp complaints from Democrats, who say the Republican Party has crossed the line in bombarding households with recorded attacks on candidates in tight House races nationwide.
Some voters, sick of interrupted dinners and evenings, say they will punish the offending parties by opposing them in today's elections. But critics say Republicans crafted the messages to delude voters -- especially those who hang up quickly -- into thinking that Democrats placed the calls.
Republicans denied the allegation, noting that their party acknowledges its authorship at the recorded calls' end. After citizens' complaints in New Hampshire, however, the National Republican Congressional Committee agreed to end the calls to households on the federal do-not-call list, even though the law exempts political messages from such restrictions.
Whether "robo-calls" are positive or negative, mean-spirited or humorous, thousands of Americans are sick of them, according to campaign organizations that have been fielding complaints over the past two weeks.
An Ohio woman, who did not leave her name, called The Washington Post in tears yesterday, saying she could not keep her phone line open to hospice workers caring for her terminally ill mother because of nonstop political robo-calls.
Pamela Lorenz, a retired nurse in Roseville, Calif., called her own experience "harassment as far as I'm concerned" and said, "If I were voting right now, the opponent who's doing this, he'd be off my list for throwing that much trash."
Hour after hour and day after day for two weeks, Lorenz's home has received the same NRCC recorded message attacking Charlie Brown, the Democrat who is challenging Rep. John T. Doolittle (R) in a hard-fought battle in northeastern California. "It is a recorder calling," Lorenz said. "I can't call it back to get them to stop."
Voters in Northern Virginia have been exposed to fewer of the aggressive "push poll" type calls than elsewhere. But they said they have been getting so many of the conventional automated calls plugging candidates that they have started hanging up as soon as the recordings begin or screening them with caller ID.
"I hang up as soon I hear it start. I've already heard most of what people have to say. I don't have time to listen to them," said Angela Elliott, a Fairfax Circle resident who is registered as an independent and has been getting more Democratic calls than Republican ones.
Nicholas Beltrante, of the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, said he has been getting an average of three to five automated calls per day from both Democrats and Republicans. "I made up my mind weeks ago, and the moment I identify them as one of those calls I just hang up," he said.
As annoyed as they are, Northern Virginia voters said their irritation will not prompt them to vote against the campaigns placing the calls, because the calls are positive in nature.
Jane Edmondson, a McLean community activist, registered Democrat and Democratic donor, said she has stopped answering calls that appear as 800 or 877 numbers on her caller ID, for fear that they are robo-calls. At church Sunday, she said, she and others were jealous of one churchgoer who said his caller ID identifies campaign calls as "political calls." "We all said, 'Why don't we get that?' " she said.
Democrats cited federal records indicating that the NRCC recently spent about $600,000 in at least 45 contested House districts for robo-calls, which are among the least expensive campaign tools. The brief calls typically begin with a speaker offering "some information" about the Democratic nominee and then immediately accusing the nominee of seeking to raise taxes, among other perceived wrongs.
Many voters hang up as soon as a robo-call begins -- without waiting for the criticisms or the NRCC sign-off at the end -- so they think it was placed by the Democratic candidate named at the start, said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "Our candidates are inundated with phone calls from furious Democrats and independents saying . . . 'I'm outraged and I'm not going to vote for you anymore,' " she said.
Feinberg said some voters have received robo-calls late at night, despite federal rules barring such calls after 9 p.m. NRCC spokesman Carl Forti said his organization ends all calls by 9 nightly.
Democrats also cited Federal Communications Commission guidelines saying the originators of automated calls must identify themselves at the beginning of each call. Republican Party lawyers, however, said the requirement does not apply to political nonprofit organizations. They rebuffed a "cease and desist" letter sent yesterday by the DCCC.
In a conference call with reporters yesterday, the DCCC chairman, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), compared the widespread robo-calling to a 2002 Republican effort in New Hampshire to jam Democratic phone lines to prevent the Democrats' get-out-the-vote effort. The Republican National Committee has spent more than $2 million to defend its officials in the case, he said. "Make no mistake, this is a dirty trick, one they've done before, one they've gotten caught on and one they continue to do," Emanuel said.
Karyn Hollis, a Villanova University English professor who supports Democrat Lois Murphy in her bid to oust Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.), said she has received numerous robo-calls attacking Murphy. "You just get sick of these calls," Hollis said. A quick hang-up can lead the recipient to conclude that Murphy supporters placed the call, she said. Listening to the full message, she said, subjects the voter to a litany of attacks against Murphy.
"It's a double thing," Hollis said. "Either way they win."
Many robo-calls involve celebrities and are positive and straightforward, such as recordings from former president Bill Clinton urging voters to support Democratic nominees. In New Jersey, comic actor Joe Piscopo has recorded messages on behalf of GOP Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr.
In Connecticut, NRCC robo-calls have targeted Dianne Farrell, the Democrat seeking to unseat Rep. Christopher Shays (R). Asked if Farrell has her own automated calls, campaign spokeswoman Jan Ellen Spiegel replied: "Only one, and it's rather distinctive because it's Paul Newman. We haven't gotten complaints about that one."
Staff writers Jonathan Weisman, Dale Russakoff and Michael Powell contributed to this report.