When Sen. Allan H. Kittleman (R-Howard) sees a "No Trespassing" sign on the front yard of a house while campaigning, he says he skips over it.
Politicians should offer the same courtesy with telephones, he believes. So he's working to deny his fellow elected officials what some of them consider a sacred right: the robocall.
The Maryland General Assembly yesterday began debating a measure sponsored by Kittleman that would make it illegal for campaigns to make those pesky automated calls to people who have signed up for the federal do-not-call telemarketing list.
The proposal has drawn the ire of some of Kittleman's colleagues and of civil libertarians who argue that it infringes on free speech.
"I think when people sign up for the do-not-call list, it's their way of saying 'no trespassing' on my phone," Kittleman said. "And if others can't call them, why not political calls?"
Kittleman isn't the only one who believes it is time to put an end to political automated calls.
Sen. James Brochin (D-Baltimore County) has sponsored a similar bill that would go further than Kittleman's proposal and ban almost all noncommercial automated calls. Politicians or candidates who violate the law would be fined $1,000 for a first offense and $5,000 for subsequent violations.
Only a handful of states, including Arkansas, North Dakota and Minnesota, ban automated calls from political parties or campaigns. Several other states, including Idaho and Connecticut, are considering measures this year.
Brochin said voters told him that the number of robocalls they received this past election was "off the charts."
"I had people tell me, 'You're done if I get a robocall from you,' " Brochin said.
His camp did not use them; neither did his opponents.
But, Brochin said, even he was inundated with calls at home from candidates in other races.
"It was a nightmare," he said.
Yesterday the Senate Finance Committee took testimony from Brochin and Kittleman.
Sen. Thomas M. Middleton (D-Charles) said he had evidence that not everyone is annoyed by robocalls.
"I had someone tell me that they got a call from Bill Clinton and I asked them, what did they do," Middleton said, laughing. "They said they saved it."
Middleton said sometimes it is not the call itself, but the time and frequency of the messages.
"I have to say I got one at one o'clock [in the morning] myself, and I didn't like it," he said.
The American Civil Liberties Union opposes the measure, arguing that the bill is unconstitutional.
"The understandable annoyance and intrusion of any unsolicited, automated call is still not a compelling enough reason to single out political speech from all the noncommercial speech for prohibition," the ACLU said in written testimony.
The state attorney general's office has also raised questions about the constitutionality of such a ban.
Michele Lewis, who represented the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, offered an amendment to the bill to make it clear that the labor union could still make calls to its members.
Sen. Katherine A. Klausmeier (D-Baltimore County) asked: "So you can communicate with your members, but I can't communicate with my constituents?"
Sen. E.J. Pipkin (R-Queen Anne's) asked Kittleman and Brochin how a candidate would respond to false allegations made by a challenger toward the end of a campaign without the use of robocalls.
Brochin suggested that candidates in that situation should take their message door to door.
That left Pipkin to ask: "Next year do we have a bill: 'Do not knock'?"
Pipkin argued that voters may get sick of political television and radio ads, mailings and phone calls during campaigns, "but that's democracy."
Earlier in the day, when Middleton announced that his committee would hear testimony on legislation to ban political phone calls, senators began chuckling.
The committee has not scheduled a vote on the measures.
So what's the likelihood that lawmakers will be willing to part with a mechanism that many feel helps get them elected?
"It's a tough call," Brochin said.