Regulating Robocalls: Are Automated Calls the Sound of, or a Threat to, Democracy?
41 Pages Posted: 3 Dec 2008 Last revised: 7 Apr 2010
Date Written: May 28, 2009
Automated telephone calls, also known as robocalls, have become one of the most used, most controversial, and least expensive tools of political campaigns. Robocalls have been used for legitimate campaigning and public opinion polling, but have also been used for vote suppression, false endorsements, and negative campaigning that borders on fraud. Robocalls also annoy voters. Unsurprisingly, Congress and many states are considering banning or regulating them. The federal regulatory regime currently excludes political robocalls from most telemarketing regulations. Patchwork state regulation of robocalls has created confusion and made compliance difficult. As a result, presidential campaigns and national interest groups have accidently violated state laws in trying to communicate with voters by using robocalls.
This paper examines the use of robocalls by political campaigns, how robocalls are currently regulated at the federal and state level, legislative proposals for new regulation, and the First Amendment issues raised by regulating robocalls. Finally, this paper advocates a solution that allows political robocalls, subject to transparency requirements to prevent the worst abuses, and recognizes the need for a national solution to protect political speech by preventing patchwork state regulation.
Keywords: robocalls, political campaign tactics, vote suppression, autodialers, robo-calls
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