A New FCC Proposal Would Make it Harder for Campaigns to Call Your Home

Chairman Tom Wheeler is pushing rules to grant access to technology that blocks automated calls—ncluding from campaigns.

A woman dialing her home phone. (National Journal)

The campaign "robocall" is in trouble.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is proposing clarifications of existing rules that would make it easier for consumers to block robocalls—calls placed using an automated dialer that often include a recorded voice, rather than a live person.

The move is primarily aimed at telemarketers, but they'll cut into the political sphere as well. Because Wheeler's proposal would allow anyone with a landline phone access to services that block all automated political calls, it would effectively allow consumers to shut out all automated messages from political campaigns, parties, and PACs.

"As it stands right now, they're lumping all of us into one bucket," said Moses Ross, who provides political robocalling services to Democrats.

Wheeler's proposal goes before the five-member FCC on June 18, where it is expected to pass. The move would assert voters' "right to revoke their consent to receive robocalls and robotexts in any reasonable way at any time." It would also allow "carriers [to] offer robocall-blocking technologies to consumers," according to a preview of Wheeler's proposal.

The government has placed more and more limitations on robocalling over the years. A few states have banned political robocalls outright. And it has been illegal to automatically dial cell phones since the signing of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991, restricting them to landlines. And as fewer and fewer households own landline phones, the technique has lost much of its punch.

It's difficult to say how many consumers would opt in for such technology. And it's unclear what "reasonable" steps voters will have to take to opt out of robocalls, since the FCC hasn't released the wording of the ruling.

But if robocalling's reach shrinks even further, it will move a time-honored campaign tactic a step closer to extinction.

Parties often rely on robocalling, along with digital ad buys and mailers, to pipe in their message directly to voters, targeting narrow sections of the population who would be receptive to a specific message rather than expensive media buys across entire markets.

Robocalls are "still widespread," said Brad Todd of Republican opinion research firm OnMessage. "They've very economical to do, and for certain applications they are very useful."

The FCC's ruling also would create opportunities to block certain polling. Interactive voice response (IVR) surveys are a popular—and cheap—method of polling, where a recorded voice asks a question and respondents choose an answer by punching a number on their phone or speaking to the automated system. They're a cornerstone for outfits such as Public Policy Polling, Rasmussen Reports, and Harper Polling, as well as by smaller groups who provide local media an opportunity to gauge low-profile races.

"The future is not IVR," Jay Leve, the founder of polling company SurveyUSA, said in January. "That's a dead dinosaur, and it had its heyday in the 1990s and should be remembered fondly for a great 15-year run from about 1992 when we invented it till about 2007 or 2008 when in effect it simply had run its course and begun an inevitable decline."

The partial loss of robocall messaging could force campaigns to rely on more expensive media such as TV, radio, and print. "It definitely would be an issue," said Chris Kolker, the founder of robocalling platform provider Dialing Services, who works with Republican clients. "Honestly, I'd probably block it, too."