In closely contested districts across the country, voters report getting automated calls that begin, “Hi, I’m calling with information about [name of Democratic candidate].” If you listen to the rest of the message, you hear a litany of negative claims about the candidate. If you hang up–as do many voters, overwhelmed by so-called robocalls this election season–you’re left with the impression that the Democrat has just called you. And unless you listen to the entire call, the machine calls you back again and again, giving you the impression that the Democrat is harassing you (Talking Points Memo, 11/6/06).
These ads are organized and paid for–as you find out at the very end of the ad, contrary to federal regulations (Associated Press, 11/1/06)–by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which coordinates the GOP’s campaign to keep control of the House of Representatives. The NRCC’s head of opposition research is Terry Nelson, who in 2002 was deputy chief of staff of the Republican National Committee; Nelson was the supervisor of Jim Tobin, the RNC’s New England political director, who was convicted of illegally jamming Democratic phone banks in New Hampshire (AlterNet, 11/6/06).
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the NRCC’s current technique could be effective. The American Prospect‘s blog Tapped (11/7/06) cites the account of a former Prospect staffer who is volunteering for Chris Murphy, a Democratic challenger in Connecticut, who reports
Presumably other would-be voters might respond by not bothering to vote at all.
Last-minute dirty tricks like these are intended to fly under the media’s radar, affecting election results before journalists can inform the public what’s going on. And the mainstream media tends to throw up its collective hands about such tactics: Mark Halperin, political director for ABC News, declared (Slate, 10/30/06) that “tracking…those robo-calls that come at the very end is nearly impossible.”
But the fact is, reporters were alerted to these deceptive calls before Election Day, and some prominent outlets did cover the story–just not prominently enough to make much of a difference. The New York Times (11/7/06) put the story on page A18, under the innocuous headline “Repeat Calls Spur a Debate Over Tactics.” The Washington Post (11/7/06) had a somewhat more critical story, but also buried it on A8. CNN mentioned the scandal on the Situation Room (11/6/06), but seems to have nothing about it on its website. CNN correspondent Ali Velshi downplayed the story this morning, saying that “we have had reports from a number of states about robocalling. Now, that’s not an election problem. That’s just calls that the political parties are making to people, automated phone calls.”
When the facts suggest an official arm of the party in power is attempting to undermine the democratic process, it ought to be a major story. If media do not aggressively expose electoral deception in real time, with enough attention to ensure that most voters are not fooled, then campaigns have every incentive to engage in such dirty tricks. They can count on the media’s fear of appearing partisan during an election season to cover for voter suppression activities, knowing that the whistle will never be blown on them loud enough to matter.
ACTION: Please contact the cable networks and insist that they cover this story of voter deception clearly and prominently.
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