What some call “the silly season” is nigh. Translation? Bone up for the 2012 election campaign, west Oakland residents. It’s going to be a doozy. Not only will we be bombarded with political ads from presidential, congressional, and U.S. senatorial campaigns, but also those from local candidates — some of whom will be deploying an array of so-called “robocalls,” which are automated political telephone calls designed to sway voters. Much like telemarketers, they have developed a reputation — among lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle — as being a nuisance to the electorate. Not only that, but there are serious and gaping holes in the way they are regulated at the state level, some argue. We couldn’t agree more. That’s why legislators need to take the first step in adding some oversight and accountability — as well as a significant measure of protection to Michigan residents — by adopting legislation proposed by Democrats in the state House of Representatives and Republicans in the state Senate.
House Bill (HB) 5254, sponsored by state Rep. Steven Lindberg (D-Marquette) would institute a free “do not call” list relative to robocalls, which would be administered by the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office. Every quarter, an updated list would be published for use by political solicitors. Ninety days after the list is initially established, the people on that list could not be contacted from within Michigan.
Each violation would be punishable by a fine of up to $1,000.
State Sen. Tonya Schuitmaker’s (R-Antwerp Township) Senate Bill (SB) 896 would require that a robocall paid for by an independent expenditure not made by a political candidate’s committee would have to include the following language in the call: “Not authorized by any candidate committee.” Likewise, robocalls authorized by a political candidate or candidate committee would have to include the following verbiage: “Authorized by (name of the candidate or name of the candidate committee).”
Knowingly violating the provisions of that proposed law would constitute a civil infraction punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 for each violation.
At least as far back as January 2007, lawmakers have been calling for reforms on the way robocalls can be used. Back at the start of the 94th legislative session, 2007-08, a similar “do not call” list was proposed by former Republican state Sen. Tony Stamas.
And state Rep. Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield, Commerce, Wolverine Lake) said she introduced last session a measure with similar required disclosures for robocalls.
What that signals to us is that lawmakers are — in what may seem like a shock to some — somewhat on the same page with regards to the oversight and regulation of robocalls. That gives us a modicum of optimism that these proposals have legs, although we aren’t holding our breath for legislative action due in part to lawmakers’ unwillingness to tackle such common-sense reforms in the past.
Why? The cynical side of us believes legislators are convinced that robocalls work, no matter what public face they put on their trumpeting of stricter disclosure requirements and “do not call” lists. So it’s time for them to put their money where their mouth is and adopt these proposed guidelines in the name of increased transparency and increased respect for their respective constituencies.
For example, Brown said that in the 2008 Republican primary race for the 39th state House District that she represents, one Republican paid for robocalls to be placed to district homes at around 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. — not advocating for him or herself, but instead the other candidate in what was seen as an attempt draw the ire of voters, therefore driving the GOP voting bloc away from the candidate being advocated for in the robocall.
That’s not run-of-the-mill politics. That move, if true, in particular is mean-spirited, not to mention completely devoid of concern for the district that candidate was trying to represent. If these proposals had been law at that time, whoever paid for and authorized that robocall would be known, and — perhaps even better yet — district residents may not have received it in the first place if they were signed up for a robocall “do not call” list.
These bills are not controversial, as evidenced by the fact that their premise has generally received sponsorship from members of both parties throughout the years. They are, instead, rational and common-sense reforms to address what seems to be a growing concern — the true nature of how money is spent, and who spends it, in our politics and campaigns — not only here in Michigan, but also nationwide.
Lawmakers need to enact these proposals once and for all to shine a light on who is behind, and not behind, the robocalls that will soon be invading our homes, and to give Michigan residents an option for preventing them from doing so.