New FCC Robocall Rules Will Expand the Power of Big Money over Elections

Politico ran a piece yesterday on the FCC’s proposed rules to allow Americans to block robocalls, that might have sounded like inside baseball and over-the-top caterwauling to those who aren’t in the research or polling industry. But it’s a far more important story than you might at first expect: unless some significant exemptions are made for political and research purposes, the power of invasive Big Data in social and corporate research will be expanded, there will be less public data on social trends overall, and big money will have even more power over the electoral process.

The reason for this takes some explaining. One of the lesser reported areas of FCC rules is the exemptions for politics and research from many of the FCC’s phone harassment guidelines designed to thwart telemarketers. For instance, the Do-Not-Call-List does not cover political or marketing research calls. Every election cycle phonebankers get complaints from voters that they’re on the Do-Not-Call-List and should be spared conversations about the election, and every cycle phonebankers are trained to remind voters that political calls are exempt. Also exempt are legitimate market research calls, which range from public polling to invitations to focus groups. Were it not for these exemptions, the opinion research industry and political field campaigns would be severely hampered.

Failing to exempt these industries from a similar anti-auto-dial list would have similar effects in a number of ways.

First, quality public polling can be performed inexpensively and legitimately with auto-dialing software that randomizes the numbers generated. This ensures a lack of bias, and keeps the process inexpensive enough that even small companies and underfunded campaigns can get access to the data they need to compete. It also allows non-profits and media organizations to generate research data in the public interest. Failing to exempt these purposes would lead to less public data, less direct-response consumer research and an even tougher hill to climb for underdog political campaigns.

The drawbacks of less public interest data are obvious. More subtle is the effect on corporate research: with another tool removed from the arsenal of research departments to understand consumers, corporations will rely even more heavily on the raw amalgam of Big Data, and use even more intrusive methods to acquire it. That may seem like a blessing to Americans who would simply prefer not to be called for legitimate surveys, but the overall effect is corrosive to privacy and ultimately to corporate ethics.

Political campaigns are also a challenge. As it stands today, phonebanking is still the most effective contact tool a political campaign’s field operation has. The persuasion rate is lower than door-to-door conversations, but the number of conversations per hour is so much greater that it’s better tool, hour over hour, for speaking to voters and persuading them to vote (or to consider voting for your candidate or issue.)

Most of the focus on autodialers in the Politico piece is about recorded robocalls, which most inside data show to be nearly or entirely ineffective. But skilled political operatives know that something more serious is at stake: human-to-human calls facilitated by a robodialer. Robodialer calls go far faster and reach far more people than direct input. Systems like Callfire are a godsend for experienced field directors who want to maximize their turnout and persuasion operations but whose campaigns lack the outsize budget to send large amounts of mail and buy lots of radio or TV.

Why does this matter? Because person-to-person conversations are often the only way for people-powered campaigns to beat the power of big money. And the reality of person-to-person conversations is that they are a numbers game: you have to bring a lot of volunteers in to have a lot of conversations with voters in order to make a significant impact on the electorate. Software that enables a volunteer to double the number of voters they can reach in an hour can make or break a hard-charging underdog campaign for local or statehouse office.

As it stands, those calls can only be made to landlines and not cell phones–which already puts progressive and Democratic campaigns at a disadvantage to start with. Eliminating the robodial option entirely simply closes off one of the only avenues left for underfunded campaigns to compete, as it makes person-to-person contact that much more expensive and inefficient. Already Callfire and others have begun to scale back their robodial options for fear of legal and regulatory challenges–a fact that is already causing headaches for progressive field campaign professionals.

Hopefully the FCC will see that robodial rules should have the same political and research exemptions as the Do-Not-Call-List does. Otherwise, public interest research will decrease, the power of big data will increase, and the grip of the wealthy and well-connected over our political process will tighten even further.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.