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Home News  Time to hang up the phone on those rogue robo calls
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Wednesday, November 18,2009

Time to hang up the phone on those rogue robo calls

by Kyle Melinn

I’m all for free speech and everything, but isn’t it high time to do something about these annoying political robo-calls?


I swear I get these things on my answering machine every week — the voice rarely identifying himself or herself in the oft-anonymous and usually negative message.


We’re on the federal Do Not Call List but we get these calls anyway. If it’s not about Jennifer Granholm wanting to "destroy agriculture," it’s about Mike Rogers wanting to destroy health care or Mark Schauer wanting to dismantle my freedoms.


Even the Lansing Community College board race isn’t immune from robocalls these days. In the general election campaign, they surfaced against one candidate, Thomas Patrick Morgan. In response, Morgan produced his own, in which he clearly identified himself.


If my job wasn’t to track these things, I’d be more agitated.


Every mailer, every flier, every TV commercial, every lawn sign and every radio spot a political candidate puts out must include a disclosure about whose paying for the piece. The same isn’t true for robo-calls. That’s a fix that’s a long time coming.


Robo-calls are dirt cheap and easy to pull off if you know the right people. They’re also nearly impossible to track for a homeowner whose limited tools include caller ID and *69.


Since they lurk within a dead zone of federal or state regulation, robo-calls can be done anonymously.


Every session since 2003, someone in the state House or the Senate has introduced a bill to either require financial disclosure on political robo-calls or put them into Do Not Call List hell. Most years, it’s been both.


Every year, these bills become either one-chamber victories for politically vulnerable freshmen or get tossed and end up as recycled paper.


The problem is that for as much as politicians claim to hate robo-calls, they’re convenient tools for politics’ dark side. Forcing folks by criminal penalty to fess up to paying for these 30 seconds of slime would mean stopping this decade’s easiest way to sneak attack.


For example, Republican state senators Tony Stamas, of Midland, and Bill Hardiman, of Kentwood, have had robocall restriction bills in the Legislature. Yet, one of the big users of robo-calling is Stamas’ and Hardiman’s Michigan Republican Party, which may have had a hand in a robo-call against Lt. Gov. John Cherry, a likely candidate for governor, for a potential cut Granholm could have made (but ultimately didn’t) to the Michigan State University Agriculture Extension station.


While all signs pointed to the state GOP as the financiers, we’ll never know for sure because the mysterious telephone caller never identified himself and the GOP isn’t required to admit that it was responsible.


Let’s take this recent robo-call attack against Morgan, who narrowly missed being elected to the LCC board on Nov. 4, for example. Three weeks since the final ballots have been counted and still nobody is claiming responsibility for that one, either.


"Vote no on shady, backroom politics. Vote no on Thomas Morgan," the caller said.


Where did this call come from? The local and state chambers of commerce said they didn’t do it. Morgan’s opponents said they didn’t do it.


There was even a rumor that Morgan’s own supporters cooked up the robo-call to gin up publicity on Morgan’s campaign. That’s apparently not true either.


So who did it? We may never know, which is torture to Morgan whose slim loss has to leave him wondering "What if?"


Some political consultants point out that requiring robo-call disclosure may be impossible to enforce. Folks wanting to use the tool on the sly could hire a company from outside the state or even the country, thereby avoiding the long-arm of the law.


In reality, if Candidate A was forced to say that he paid for a robo-call hit piece that urged the listener to "Call Candidate B and ask her why she hates children," the P.O.-ed person getting the call would be more likely to call Candidate A and urge him to quit calling.


Candidate A probably doesn’t like this scenario, but so what. That’s not our problem. The average person hates robo-calls, political or otherwise.


If they’re coming into our homes, the person financing the call needs to take responsibility, pure and simple.


If banning robo calls on landlines doesn’t happen now, cell phones are next. Politicians in Lansing will wish they’d have tried to hang up on this problem a long time ago.


(Kyle Melinn is the editor of the MIRS Newsletter. His column appears weekly. E-mail him at melinn@lansingcitypulse. com.)

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