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Political calls: no disclosures, almost no limits


Next year is an election year. That means lots of campaign literature in the mail, lots of ads on the television,   and, maybe worst of all, robo-calls. Those are the recorded calls that automatically dial your phone…usually right at dinner time. There are a lot of them now, but there could be a lot more in the future.

Even one of the guys who makes robo-calls happen knows most people don’t really like them.

“Everybody hates them. I think that they’re universally hated.”

Mark Grebner runs Practical Political Consulting, based in East Lansing. Grebner says not only are robo-calls annoying, they don’t work.  He says people hang up.  He estimates of 10,000 calls that go out, probably fewer than 300 people listen from beginning to end.”

That’s why he doesn’t think candidates should buy them.

“I always try to talk them out of it," Grebner said. "I always tell them they should have spent it six months ago and as far as we’re concerned, it’s a bad idea. That doesn’t ever succeed. So, we end up taping the calls for them anyway. But, I just tell them I think it’s a waste of money.”

Grebner says sometimes the candidate is just angry, wanting to attack an opponent or get some kind of revenge. Or, a candidate gets a lot of  money in the last days of the campaign.  There’s no time to get TV ads on the air or flyers printed up and mailed, so, they go with robo-calls. 

And you won’t believe how easy it is. 

“You can actually make up something at noon, get it recorded at 1:00 and and it get it delievered at 2:00 p.m.,” said Grebner.

We did it even faster.  I asked Mark Grebner if his team could put together a robo-call for me. And it was produced and dialing out by the time we were finished talking:

“Would you vote for Lester Graham if you knew he was mean to little kids and old people? Leadership requires kindness to children and care for the elderly. Call Lester Graham and let him know you’ll only support a candidate who will support our kids and our senior citizens. Paid for by the coalition for kids and old folks.”

By the way… uh…we goofed and actually sent out that message to someone. So, for the record, if you got that call, I’m not really mean to little kids or the elderly. Honestly.

The thing is… a candidate doesn’t even have to report robo-calls. They can be done anonymously. 

Rich Robinson is with the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, a watchdog group.

He says it’s no holds barred. No one has to follow any rules because the Campaign Finance Act doesn’t mention phone calls, automated or otherwise.

“Even if the ad says, 'Vote against Lester Graham. He’s mean to children and the elderly,’ people won’t necessarily report that because the Campaign Finance Act is silent on that medium of communication,” Robinson said.

And Rich Robinson says anyone who’s angry or trying to mislead voters or to smear someone’s reputation can get away with it.

“Absolutely," he said. "You can make up a completely ficticious committee name. You can lie through your teeth in the message. You can report nothing. It’s a terrible scam. It’s an outrage.”

Now, maybe you’re thinking… I don’t care.  I don’t even have a land line telephone anymore.  Well, Congress is considering a bill right now that would allow robo-calls to your cell phone… not just from politicians, but from anyone… even if you have to pay the cell phone minutes.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.