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Conservatives use Democratic phone bank for own purposes, raise privacy concerns

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 1, 2010; 9:47 AM

Conservative pranksters are trying to use a Democratic group's online phone-banking system for their own means, making mischief by calling the voters themselves and urging them to vote Republican.

The virtual phone bank is a project of Organizing for America, the grass-roots group that grew out of President Obama's 2008 campaign. It allows anyone to go to Call.BarackObama.com to instantly see the name, sex, phone number, city of residence and polling place address of a voter identified by the organization as a potential supporter of Democratic candidates.

The aim of the project is to give volunteers an easy way to help get out the vote by phone calling prospective voters anywhere, any time, with minimal hassle. But the fact that literally anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can view voter information has raised privacy questions, and some conservative bloggers and tea party activists are using the system for their own ends.

"I just called and asked them to vote for the conservative candidate who was in their area," said Robin Stublen, a tea party activist in Florida. Part of his purpose, he said, was to expose the organization's folly in providing the numbers so readily. "You don't have to log on and you can get the numbers. I mean, duh."

On the conservative site Biggovernment.com, several commenters endorsed a proposal to call the Organizing for America voters through the site, and one poster purported to have made more than 500 calls dispensing "facts" about the election. Marianne Stevenson, a blogger on the conservative Resistnet.com, wrote that her friends "had a field day calling folks."

Kevin DuJan, editor of Hillbuzz.com, an anti-Obama blog, earlier this month suggested that its conservative readers could use the site to identify and call voters in key swing states such as Nevada and Illinois. In a phone interview, he said he is also encouraging people to sabotage the site - pretending to call voters, then claiming on the online form that the voters are deceased or voted early.

"Here's something you can do to throw the Left off their game in the lead-up to the November election and you don't even have to leave your home to do it," he wrote recently. "It's FREE, easy, and actually kind of fun."

Lynda Tran, the spokeswoman for Organizing for America, said she has not heard of any such abuses taking place. Rather, she said the campaign has been a resounding success; during a one-day campaign on Oct. 16, volunteers used the online phone bank to reach more than 1.2 million voters whose presence at the polls would help the embattled party on Tuesday.

"I haven't heard of anyone using our call tool for any reason [other] than what we created it to do - specifically, to get volunteers engaged and calling their neighbors to urge them to head to the polls on Election Day," she said in an e-mail. "Organizers are thrilled that the tool allows people to be involved on their own schedules in the convenience of their own homes."

It is unlikely that large numbers of fraudulent callers are tipping the scales for voters on the Organizing for America databases, which includes millions of Democrats and independents. But some privacy advocates say the openness of the system leaves room not only for partisan trickery but abuse.

A person need not register or provide any personal information to get on the Call.BarackObama.com site. He or she simply has to open the site to get the name and number of a single voter. Once the volunteer calls the voter and fills out an online form, another voter's information pops up automatically. There are limits: The database is not searchable, and an unregistered caller can dial only seven voters before the system asks them to sign in.

"There's no logical reason why OFA needs to display pretty much any of the information they provide," said Shaun Dakin, founder of Stop Political Phone Calls, a nonprofit that opposes robo-calls and maintains a political do-not-call registry. "In general, politicians just play fast and loose with voters' privacy."

Dakin pointed to a similar program run by the Republican National Committee as a better model.

The GOP's phone-from-home program requires callers to register on the Republican National Committee's Web site before making a single phone call. Callers are privy only to the name and state of the voters they call. In addition, volunteers dial from their computers rather than their phones, which masks the phone numbers of both people on the line.

The regulations are likely deter some callers who decide not to register or don't have high-speed Internet connections, but party officials say the tradeoffs are worth it to protect privacy and retain the freedom to weed out callers who misbehave.

Tran said the information Organizing for America provides to callers is publicly available and "for the most part what you would find in your standard White Pages." The voters' age and party affiliation are available only to those who register on the site. The organization also monitors the phone-banking efforts and looks for patterns that might suggest abuse, she said.

sandhya@washpost.com Staff researcher Alice Crites contributed to this report.


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