Yesterday's San Jose Mercury News featured this story by Frank Davies reporting that the California Public Utilities Commission recently issued a ruling that political robocalls, which use computers to dial phones and play automated messages, violate the state's utility code. The California Voter Foundation routinely receives numerous complaints from voters about these automated calls. Up until this week I, and I expect many others in the political field, assumed these calls, while annoying, are protected under the First Amendment. Based on the news being reported, it looks like campaigns will have to alter their tactics in how they deliver such calls to voters. An excerpt from the Mercury News story is below.
California's rules against robocalls are little-known and widely ignored. Susan Carothers of the PUC said Tuesday that commission staffers recently reviewed the code, which says such calls are legal only when introduced by a real person who asks for your consent to hear a recorded message. That rarely happens.
But enforcement is not easy. Consumers must first complain to their phone company, and if nothing is done, file a complaint with the PUC. Only two such complaints were filed with the PUC in the past two years, Carothers said.
That may change. An advocacy group, the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, is seeking complaints from California voters to present to phone carriers and the PUC.
"It's time that California voters are able to protect their privacy. Otherwise, campaigns will turn to robocalls, particularly in California, which has a very large and expensive media market," said Shaun Dakin, founder of the group.
In the February presidential primary, candidates for both parties used the get-out-the-vote calls. Actress Scarlett Johansson and comedian Chris Rock urged voters to back Obama, and Bill Clinton urged support for his wife.
Political consultants and operatives defend the calls as a low-cost alternative for candidates who don't have money for major TV and radio ad campaigns, but they concede that repeated calls at all hours can be counterproductive.
Voters who wish to file complaints can access a PUC fact sheet or seek to be added to a registry of people who do not want automated calls at www.stoppoliticalcalls.org, which also features a California-specific complaint form. Voters can also contact their county election office and ask to have their phone numbers removed from their voter registration record.
The newly-redesigned California voter registration form is also likely to help cut down on unwanted political calls for new registrants, since the new form makes it clear to those filling it out that providing a phone number is optional.