Missouri candidates divided over use of robocalls

Tuesday, September 21, 2010 | 7:00 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Candidates vying for two of Missouri's statewide offices are divided on whether to use automated telephone calls to push their campaign messages into the homes of Missouri voters.

U.S. Senate candidate Robin Carnahan and incumbent state Auditor Susan Montee, both Democrats, said their campaigns will not use the automated messages. 

A spokesperson for Tom Schweich, the Republican running against Montee, said he will use a "limited" number of automated calls.

Spokespeople for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Roy Blunt refused multiple requests to interview Blunt and did not return phone calls asking about his position.

The automated calls, or "robocalls," can reach thousands of Missouri homes in a short period and are an inexpensive marketing tool for candidates. They are exempt from state and national no-call laws and have few restrictions. Individuals or entities must only identify themselves at the beginning of the message, and they must provide a phone number or address sometime during the call.

A statement from Schweich's campaign manager, Matt Beckman, said: "With regard to robocalls we plan to use them in a limited fashion, recognizing they can be a nuisance. It falls to the campaign to use auto calls in a judicious and responsible manner." 

His opponent, Montee, said she will not use robocalls in her campaign.

"I didn't do them last time, and I'm not a believer in robocalls," said Montee.  "I don't think you convince somebody by having a recorded message."

On the Senate side, Carnahan said she has pledged not to use robocalls.

"I can't control everything everybody does, but I can control my campaign and I don't anticipate doing any of those."

After multiple attempts to contact Blunt or anyone from his campaign, no one could be reached for comment.

Automated calls often cost 1 or 2 cents per minute — a huge contrast compared to the millions of dollars campaigns spend on commercial advertisements for print, TV and radio each election. 

"The cost is so inexpensive that candidates simply assume that reaching a great number of people with the touch of a button is beneficial," said Michael Carter, a candidate for lieutenant governor in 2008.

Carter acknowledged his campaign made millions of robocalls prior to the 2008 election, but it gave people the opportunity to remove their names from a call list by going to his website.

"I knew I was going to make several million phone calls. This offered an interactive way for voters to say, 'Hey, leave me alone,' " Carter said. "People seemed to appreciate it even if it required some action on their part."

Although robocalls have a negative reputation, Carter said he experienced negative responses from only a small number of people and that many people appreciated the quick snippets of information.

State Sen. Carl Vogel, R-Jefferson City has also refused the use of robocalls in the past. Vogel used phone banks in his 2002 campaign but refrained from using them during his re-election campaign in 2006.

Bubs Hohulin, Vogel's personal assistant, said the senator decided not to use robocalls because if he didn't like getting them, he didn't think anyone else would either.

"He didn't like receiving the calls any better than anyone else," said Hohulin. "He decided he was just not going to use them."

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