An uninvited guest showed up at dinnertime for some Pennsylvania families last week: a robotic telephone message informing them that Barack Obama had associated with a terrorist.
The robocall warned of Obama's "extreme leftist agenda" and noted that the Democratic presidential nominee "has worked closely with domestic terrorist Bill Ayers, whose organization bombed the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, a judge's home and killed Americans."
That message, which identified itself as originating with the McCain-Palin 2008 campaign, was telephonically delivered to voters in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and other states as well.
Because of a loophole that politicians inserted for themselves in the Do Not Call registry, campaign-related robocalls are perfectly legal, and thanks to their low cost, they're popular during elections. But the deluge of robocalls in contested states has irritated some voters, and it's not clear how effective they truly are.
Robocalls are used not only by presidential campaigns, but also by congressional candidates, city councils, and school board positions. That means some voters--if they're especially unlucky--can receive as many as 10 to 15 automated messages a day.
Amid all the controversy remains the question of whether robocalls are even effective. It's unclear how many recipients of the Ayers-related message will switch their votes as a result of being informed that Obama traveling in the same circles as a member of the Weather Underground Organization that claimed responsibility for bombings in the early 1970s.
Yet even though both Republicans and Democrats decry the calls, the message has remained part of the national dialogue. And in the final weeks leading up to the November election, neither side is willing to forgo one of the easiest, most efficient ways to reach voters.
The tool of the underfunded
Both the Obama campaign and Republican John McCain's presidential campaign have used robocalls to reach voters in numerous states, though reports indicate McCain is using them more. Robocalls from McCain's campaign or his supporters are outpacing Obama robocalls three to one, by Shaun Dakin's count.
Dakin is the founder and CEO of Citizens for Civil Discourse, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that runs the National Political Do Not Contact Registry, a list of individuals asking politicians to stop sending them unsolicited phone calls. He has been tracking the presidential campaigns' robocalls on his blog. He said it's no surprise McCain is using robocalls more heavily, given Obama's substantial fundraising advantage.
Robocalls "are kind of one of the last remaining tools for the seriously underfunded candidates," Dakin said.
Because candidates can reach large audiences at cheap prices with robocalls, candidates often use them in the final days of a campaign to drive home a certain message or to drive turnout to the polls.
"Anybody who has a couple bucks left over is making robocalls right now," said Angela McMillen, a representative of the American Association of Political Consultants.
While automated calls have been utilized for decades, changes in technology and the increase of robocall vendors has driven down the price of robocalls significantly, making the tool accessible to even the most minor candidates.
"It does allow those candidates and organizations who can't compete with the big boys to have a voice," Dakin said. In a small campaign, he said, "there's not a lot of volunteers banging down the doors to do work, so if you're a campaign manager it's a lot easier to outsource your campaign to technology."
That technology is fairly straightforward: it is essentially a Web-based interface, or software on a computer with a dialer capacity, connected to a high speed line or voice over IP. Some voter-calling firms develop their own software, while others use software like Spitfire, developed by OPC Marketing.
Many voter-calling firms are politically aligned, like GOPcalls.com, which has served clients like the 2000 and 2004 Bush campaigns and Senator Pete Domenici (R-N.M.). Founder and CEO Chris Kolker started the business just over 20 years ago, selling standalone automated dialers to churches looking for ways to notify parishioners about upcoming events. Kolker started developing his own software and working with political clients about 16 years ago.
Since Kolker started--working on analog lines--prices for such services have dropped from about 10 to 15 cents a call to around 5 cents a call, he said. Vendors that offer voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services can even charge just a fraction of a penny for completed calls. Some vendors, however, say that the lower cost of VoIP may not be worth the risk of dropped calls and degraded voice quality.
"I'm curious what's going to happen at crunch time," Kolker said. "This is the first big election when a lot of people have been using VoIP, and I have a feeling people are going to be suffering because those calls aren't going to be successful."
The use of robocalls became more widespread around 2000, Kolker said, and this year he is upgrading his servers to meet a higher demand.
Robocalls have become so popular that the Democratic National Committee recently purchased its own system with which they'll be able to complete a large number of automated calls a day, according to Brad Chism, president of Zata3, a voter-calling firm that serves Democrats.
"Part of it is fascination with the low cost," he said.
Too many calls?
It's possible that politicians--and aspiring politicians--may be using robocalls a little overzealously.
Nearly two-thirds of voters received pre-recorded campaign calls ahead of the 2006 midterm elections, according to the Pew Research Center. By March of this year, 39 percent of voters nationwide had already received a pre-recorded political phone call, according to another Pew study. It showed robocalls to be the top form of direct campaign outreach, over mailings or live phone calls.
Late last year, in the critical caucus state of Iowa, 81 percent of residents received robocalls, according to Pew. However, some residents have more than just national political calls to deal with.
"These robocalls go on at every level, and that's the problem," Dakin said. "If you live in a contested district in a contested state, by the end of the day you're getting 10 to 15 calls."
Dakin said he decided to start the National Political Do Not Contact Registry after working as a volunteer for various Democratic campaigns, including Jim Webb's successful 2006 senate race. He said he was taken aback by how angry people were to receive unsolicited calls from him.
"We started thinking we might have been doing more harm than good," he said.
He officially launched the registry in the fall of last year. The registry is not legally binding, but about 75,000 people have signed up, requesting politicians stop calling them. Dakin said one robocall vendor, Democratic Dialing, has pledged to scrub its calling lists against the registry. Ten politicians from across the country have committed to not calling people on the registry, including two members of Congress: Reps. Viriginia Foxx (R-N.C.) and Nancy Boyda (D-Kansas).
Robocalls have a reputation for carrying distasteful messages, but vendors claim most firms in their industry maintain ethical standards, such as those set forth by the American Association of Political Consultants' robocall guidelines.
"What you have is rogue political hacks who launch these calls without the proper safeguards or proper disclosures that sully the name of others on both sides of the aisle," said Chism. "Unfortunately, there are people in this business who have access to this technology who employ it without regard to the long-term benefits of civil society."
It would, in fact, not be difficult for an individual to set up a robocalling station out of their own home. During the Democratic primary this year, residents in South Carolina received robocalls reciting malicious smears about Hillary Clinton from an individual named Robert Morrow out of Austin, Texas.
Do the calls work?
The effectiveness of robocalls is suspect at best. Yale political science professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber have been studying voter mobilization efforts for the past 10 years and have conducted about a dozen experiments explicitly examining the effects of robocalls.
"Robocalls have a perfect record of never having mobilized anybody," Green said. "One has to have a very naive view of voter psychology to think that would have an enduring effect on vote choice."
He said there is no evidence that robocalls are effective if paired with political mailings.
Kolker said, however, that robocalls are effective--otherwise, politicians would not use them.
"When you look at the number of people who listen to these calls, it's higher than you'd expect," he said.
In this year's Pew study, 44 percent of voters in Iowa who received robocalls said they usually hang up on the calls, while 35 percent said they usually listen to them.
Kolker said his firm conducts robopolls for a few large polling firms with surprising success. He said around 30 percent of call recipients take time to participate in robopolls. Additionally, more people pick up the phone when the Caller ID is listed as "political poll" versus "anonymous."
Including the longer robopoll calls, Kolker said his firm's calls average 55 seconds in length, but the average call recipient hangs up at 22 seconds. His data shows 58 percent of recipients hanging up early and 42 percent listening to the entire message.
"I don't see how that could be a bad thing," he said.
In August of this year, the FTC commercial robocalls, requiring telemarketers to acquire written consent from consumers before sending them prerecorded calls. The telemarketing regulations, however, do not apply to political calls because, the FTC said, political calls do not fall under the category of telemarketing.
In addition, when Congress was drafting the legislation creating the National Do Not Call Registry, it explicitly exempted its members and other politicians from the rules that apply to commercial businesses. (It should be no surprise that politicians also exempted themselves from the Can-Spam Act.)
Legislation has been introduced to federally regulate political robocalls. The Robocall Privacy Act was introduced in February 2008 by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and in April by Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) The legislation regulates robocalls made 60 days leading up to a general, special, or run-off election and the 30 days before a primary election, a caucus, or a political nominating convention. It imposes limitations like the times the calls can be made and how many can be made in a day.
"We have seen an unprecedented use of robocalls in this election," Feinstein said. "All indications are that the public does not like these abusive calls, and I look forward to pursuing this legislation during the next Congress."
But even though the Senate bill was introduced more than eight months ago, it has never been voted out of the Democrat-controlled Senate Rules and Administration Committee. Similarly, the House bill remains stuck in the Democrat-controlled Committee on House Administration.
A number of states have strict political robocall laws, including California, which has an outright ban on them.
"They're just not known and definitely not enforced," Dakin said.
On Tuesday, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper announced the group Women's Voices Women Vote would be fined $100,000 and banned from campaigning in North Carolina until after Election Day for failing to comply with the state's robocall laws. The group did not include information about itself in the calls, or a way to contact the organization.
CNET's Declan McCullagh contributed to this report.