Automated calls piss off voters

Atlanta Braves starter John Smoltz was on the phone to make a political pitch, one that Lawrence Hammond didn’t appreciate.

“He’s a great pitcher,” said Hammond, a 41-year-old accountant who lives near Augusta, Ga., “but I don’t care about his political views.”

Smoltz’s call was among the 18 or 19 that filled Hammond’s voicemail during a weekend beach trip last month as the Georgia primary election neared. The recorded messages praising Republican candidates may have hurt more than helped.

“I would probably still vote for the Republican, but it could turn me off to them,” Hammond said. “I wouldn’t want to support them as much.”

Automated phone banks or robo-calls, at times featuring baseball all-stars, local heroes and former politicians, have been a fixture of some campaigns for more than a decade. In recent years they have emerged as a daily presence as more and more state and local candidates look for a quick, inexpensive way to reach — if often annoy — thousands of voters.

“It’s extremely cost effective — way cheaper than a piece of mail, way cheaper than a live phone call,” said Elizabeth J. Welsh, president of Louisville, Ky.-based Executive Communications Inc., which runs political campaigns and hires companies to send automated calls for clients.

Notify Quick, a Chaska, Minn.-based company that is one of many advertising the phone service online, offers the calls for as little as a nickel each.

Big names are another way to get attention. Former President Clinton recorded a call on behalf of Sen. Joe Lieberman for Connecticut Democrats. A candidate for the Georgia House used an automated phone endorsement from his local high school’s 18-year-old pageant queen.

The calls are seen as effective, too. Georgia state Sen. Casey Cagle relied on the calls to upset former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor. Some homes in suburban Atlanta’s predominantly Republican counties received more than two dozen calls from the Cagle campaign alone.

“The automatic calls are pretty heavily used by both sides in almost every major campaign because they’re so incredibly cheap,” said Cagle spokesman Brad Alexander. “The question isn’t whether you can afford to do them, but how many you want to do.”

And in a political world where time equals votes, politicians like the phone banks because they’re fast.

“If my opponent attacks me right now, literally within minutes I can put a phone call out there to respond,” Welsh said.

That’s the candidate’s point of view. In the era of the “Do Not Call” list, however, many voters find the automated phone calls to be a nuisance, even if they come with a high-profile voice.

Leading up to the May primaries in Nebraska, some homeowners reported their answering machines full of the automated campaign calls. And in California, the rush of robo-calls prompted scores of readers on the San Francisco Chronicle’s Web site to call them “truly repulsive” and “my newest annoying pet peeve.”

Some experts say a backlash is to be expected.

“Name recognition is important, but you do run into the problem of overdoing it,” said Gary Copeland, a communications professor at the University of Alabama. “Particularly with those folks who are sensitive about getting phone calls at home anyway, them getting a few calls a week, or more, is really going to turn them off.”

Political groups, charities and surveys are exempt from the “Do Not Call” list, a fact that surprises some voters.

“Many people don’t actually understand that,” Copeland said. “It’s not just the annoyance of the phone call, but it’s them saying, ‘What the hell are these people doing calling me?’ ”

Several states have passed or are considering laws banning the calls. In Montana, politicians face the same limitations as telemarketers and can face a fine of up to $2,500 if they send out the automated calls.

Politicians need to be careful about sending out too many of the recordings, Welsh said, but she predicted they’re not going away.

“We don’t worry as much about people actually following through and not voting for them,” she said. “I think the gain far outweighs the loss.”

Copyright © 2006 The Associated Press