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Voters are getting a phone message from Trump in Montana, where robo-calls are illegal

Republican Greg Gianforte won Montana's special congressional election on May 25, a day after he was charged with assaulting a reporter. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

Rather than risk an embarrassing loss Thursday, Washington Republicans have gone all in on Montana's special congressional election.

Numerous members of Congress have sent fundraising emails for Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte. Donald Trump Jr. and Vice President Pence went out west this month for rallies. And in the final few hours of the race, Pence and President Trump each recorded phone calls for the Republican National Committee expressing support for Gianforte.

Except, there's one hang-up on that last outreach effort: robo-calls are technically illegal in Montana, punishable by a fine of up to $2,500. How Republicans got around that ban is technically legal, even though it arguably undermines the intent of the rule. But politicians are pros at finding ways to call voters en masse: Finding ways to circumvent bans on robo-calls is as old as landlines.

Some Democrats watching Thursday's election for the congressional seat vacated by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke were quick to seize on the robo-call as another example of the Trump administration walking up to the law and stomping on it.

But Republicans in Washington say they knew what they were doing: To comply with the law, they're paying real people to call up potential voters and ask them if they want to hear a message from the president or vice president. The decades-old law makes a clear exception for that, Republicans point out.

That means when Montana voters' phones ring at dinner this week, they pick up and hear actual person introducing themselves with: “Hello, I’m so and so calling from the Republican National Committee. May I play you a recorded message from President Donald Trump about the upcoming special election?”

If the caller says yes, the call will switch over to a recording made by the president or vice president: “Greg Gianforte is running to be your next congressman, and President Trump and I need Greg working with us in Washington to cut your taxes, secure our borders and protect your Second Amendment rights,” Pence says in his call.

See? Perfectly legal. But more costly: The Republican National Committee has to pay a call center to ask voters whether they want to hear a robo-call.

And there's no guarantee said person will say “yes” — robo-calls are illegal because Montana voters don't want to be bothered by them. In fact, some version of commercial robo-calls are illegal in more than 40 states; at least a dozen have explicit restrictions on political calls. Congress has tried several times in the past few decades to limit the reach of robo-calls.

The president isn't the only one trying to call Montana voters despite Montana's ban. A super PAC affiliated with Trump, Great America PAC, also recorded calls for Gianforte, including one from Wisconsin conservative superhero Sheriff David Clarke.

The group said it stayed on the right side of the robo-call ban because it wasn't a call at all: Clarke's message went straight to people's voice mail.

The Great America PAC sent out a robocall from Sheriff David Clarke in support of Montana's Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte. (Video: Great America PAC)

But even if the president had recorded a call that rang up voters' homes without asking permission first, he probably could have gotten away with it. Political recordings are as old as landlines, but decades later, there's no real consensus on whether they should be allowed.

Let's take Montana as a good example. Its robo-call ban is tough to enforce. Montana's enforcement body on political campaigns doesn't have jurisdiction over crimes, which the state law says a robo-call is. People can call their local police and complain, but from there, the police don't have a lot of resources.

When Montana voters complained during the presidential GOP primary that they were getting robo-calls from Ted Cruz's presidential campaign, all the commissioner of political practices could do was shrug and say he couldn't do anything about it.

“Nothing can be done,” said then-commissioner Jonathan Motl. “I can’t do anything about robo-call complaints.”

(The robo-calls even became a political issue: Cruz's campaign denied making the calls, to which Ohio Gov. John Kasich's presidential campaign snapped back: “We're doing things in the way it should be done in Montana.")

Even if Montana officials could do something about robo-calls, the caller could conceivably claim that the state's ban is violating his or her free speech on campaigns. People in other states have tried that argument — and actually won, says Anthony Johnstone, a law professor at University of Montana and former state solicitor.

In 2010, a Republican strategist was arrested in South Carolina for making robo-calls for state House races. The courts agreed with him that the state's robo-call ban was unconstitutional.

In July, a federal judge in Arkansas struck down the state's ban on political robo-calls, saying it violated callers' First Amendment rights.

But a robo-call ban in Pence's home state, Indiana, has survived repeated freedom-of-speech challenges by political campaigns in state and federal courts. The state's attorney general says the calls are a “nuisance” that plague Hoosiers, and in January, a federal appeals court agreed, writing:

“No one can deny the legitimacy of the state's goal: Preventing the phone (at home or in one's pocket) from frequently ringing with unwanted calls. Every call uses some of the phone owner's time and mental energy, both of which are precious.”

In Montana, lawmakers seem split about whether to keep fighting robo-calls that will happen anyway or to just give up and let them happen.

In 2015, a Democratic lawmaker introduced a bill to give the state's political enforcement commission the power to prosecute robo-call violators. This year, the state's previous political commissioner suggested a draft bill to allow robo-calls for political campaigns, but it never got introduced.

In other words: In the middle of a heated election, Montana voters may not want to hear politicians call them up. But there's nothing they can do to avoid getting calls from the president anyway.