Local Democrats back ban on political robo-calls

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, August 21, 2013

MADISON—Sen. Tim Cullen thinks Wisconsin residents should get a break from those often annoying recorded phone messages that light up telephones during election season.

“Many would consider this bombardment of political robo-calls to be an invasion of privacy,” said Cullen, D-Janesville, in a news release.

Cullen is a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 6, which would ban automated political phone messages in Wisconsin.

Rep. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, is one of the Assembly co-sponsors. No Republicans are co-sponsoring, a Cullen aide said.

Wisconsin operates a no-call list for commercial calls, and automated calls are already banned in certain cases, but political robo-calls are allowed. Senate Bill 6 would ban only robo-calls, not calls from actual people.

At least some political strategists believe live calls are much more effective than recordings, according to a 2012 article by Bill Lueders of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.

Live calls cost much more than automated calls, however.

Lueders found that hundreds of thousands of dollars had been spent on robo-calls in Wisconsin from 2008-11.

A similar bill has been proposed for several sessions of Congress by Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., according to The Hill, a respected political publication in Washington, D.C.

Foxx's bill calls for people to opt out by registering with a do-not-call registry. The Wisconsin bill would ban robo-calls outright.

“The problem with automated political messages is that each message is simply a pre-recorded sound bite; it offers no opportunity for the exchange of ideas that is so critical to our democracy,” Cullen said.

Senate Bill 6 was referred to the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Public Works, and Telecommunications.

The chairman of that committee is Sen. Paul Farrow, R-Pewaukee. Scott Rausch of Farrow's office, who is clerk of the committee, said Farrow has not slated the bill for a hearing, in part because of competing proposals. 

Sen. Jon Erpenbach, D-Middleton, for example, has proposed Senate Bill 9, which would ban most robo-calls, including political ones, with exceptions for schools and employers who are notifying workers of their works schedules.

Rausch indicated Farrow might be more inclined to allow a hearing if the authors would argee on a compromise.

Committee chairpersons can decide whether or not bills get a hearing and whether they make it to the full Senate for a vote, so it's unclear whether this bill will fly in the Republican-dominated Legislature.

Cullen said in his news release that much bigger changes are needed to reform political campaigning. He supports limits on the amount of money spent in elections, taking the politics out of redistricting and greater accountability for out-of-state, third-party groups and donors.

Cullen notes that robo-calls have largely stopped now, but they're likely to resume as elections loom next year.


Last updated: 3:12 pm Thursday, August 22, 2013

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