If you haven’t been targeted by a political robocall this year, you’re among the lucky ones. In the first five months of 2019, Americans received about 25 billion robocalls—that’s 76 calls for every person in the country.
That number is bound to increase as the 2020 election season heats up. Robocalls are cheap compared with other methods of contacting voters; campaigns can make political robocalls for as little as a penny per call. Direct mail, on the other hand, can range from 22 cents to $1 or more per contact, and social media ads can cost more than $5 per click.
If the thought of being flooded with political calls and texts makes you yearn for the unplugged life, here’s how to block political calls from your phone.
What are political robocalls?
Robocalls work just like phone calls placed by a person, except a computer system initiates the call using an autodialer program. When you answer the call, the system plays a prerecorded message. Campaigns use political robocalls to fundraise, increase awareness about a candidate’s policy platforms, call attention to an opponent’s positions, boost attendance at campaign events and encourage supporters to vote.
Politicians and their partner political action committees (PACs) are always looking for new ways to get in touch with potential voters cheaply and effectively. Robocalls allow them to do so efficiently: A staffer can record a message and deliver it to 10,000 phone numbers in a matter of minutes using robocall technology.
Related: What is a robocall?
Are political robocalls legal?
Campaigns enjoy protected status when it comes to political robocalls. While the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) forbids telemarketers from calling numbers on the National Do Not Call Registry, political robocalls are considered political speech, which is protected by the First Amendment.
There are, however, a few exceptions to this loophole. While campaigns are allowed to make political robocalls to landlines, they can’t call cellphones without the owner’s consent. If a campaign calls your mobile phone without your permission, it violates the TCPA and the perpetrator can be sued for up to $1,500 per call.
While the law is clear, Joseph P. McClelland, an Atlanta attorney specializing in consumer rights, said politicians rarely pay a penalty for violating the TCPA. “Filing lawsuits against a politician for robocalling is controversial within the consumer protection world, and many attorneys run from these cases,” McClelland said. The rationale: Making political enemies is a surefire way to have legislators band together to try and remove all consumer-protection robocall legislation.
The other challenge: It can be difficult to determine the correct person to sue when PACs are involved. If the PAC is the guilty party, consumers are even less likely to collect, according to McClelland. “Attorneys who have pushed forward against PACs have reported mixed success, as the committee they sue often has no money when the election is over,” he said.
But positive developments are on the horizon. North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx introduced legislation allowing voters to opt out of political robocalls. The Robo COP Act would eliminate the special status campaigns enjoy and force them to play by the same robocall rules as other businesses and nonprofits.
Although the bill currently lacks co-sponsors and is unlikely to come up for a vote this year, the issue is gaining traction simply because people are tired of robocall harassment.
How do I stop political robocalls?
Unfortunately, if you have a landline, you can’t opt out of political robocalls. That doesn’t mean you’re at the mercy of endless unwanted calls. You can take steps to restrict or block political robocalls.
- Don’t disclose your phone number on your voter registration. Most states only require a street address when you register to vote. If a phone number is optional in your state, don’t volunteer it. PACs usually rely on voter registration data to contact potential voters. If your number isn’t available, they can’t call you.
- Screen your incoming calls. If you don’t recognize a phone number, you can use a reverse phone lookup service to try and identify the caller—or simply don’t answer the call.
- Use a call-blocking app on your mobile phone. There are many excellent free and paid call-blocking apps that automatically block or reject known spam and political robocalls.
- Shut down robotexts. Campaigns are increasingly using SMS texts to contact voters. If your call-blocking app doesn’t block robotexts, you can usually opt out by texting “stop” to the sender. Alternatively, you can block the sender using the contact list on your smartphone.
- Switch your landline to VoIP technology. If you have a VoIP landline, you can use robocall-blocking services not available to traditional landlines that automatically intercept unwanted political robocalls.
- Ask your phone company about anonymous call blocking. Most telecom providers offer anonymous call rejection for your home landline. Once this feature is enabled, callers must provide either a name or phone number before the call is connected. If they refuse, the call is automatically disconnected. If they provide the information, you have the option to accept or reject the call.
Until new legislation passes to restrict political robocalls, they are bound to continue. Take advantage of call-blocking technology and privacy protection services, such as a reverse phone lookup, to better avoid becoming a political pawn this election season.