Anti-Robocall Bill Unlikely to Advance
"Everyone's got caucus hangover right now," State Rep. Ray Zirkelbach said of the pre-recorded calls still echoing in the ears of Iowans. The Monticello Democrat is trying to put a stop to auto-dialed "robocalls" by making the tactic illegal in Iowa. But critics of the bill have free speech concerns, and Zirkelbach's own frank assessment is that the bill, though popular with his constituents, won't advance this year.
Party leaders "haven't even talked to me about it," said Zirkelbach. "I'm sure a ton of people are against it." Still, he stands by House File 2008. "Everybody complains about (the calls) but no one does anything about it."
Zirkelbach said he was prompted to introduce the bill because of complaints from constituents during his first campaign in 2004, and said the number of calls has gotten worse since then. "I have a lot of factory jobs in my district" in Jones and Dubuque Counties, he said. "A lot of people work third shift and sleep different hours."
"I also look at Iowa's aging population, or families with young children," he said.
Sarah Swisher of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) doesn't like the bill. SEIU owns, and often uses, autodialing equipment. "We use it to remind people of satellite voting sites, or when they've been sent a ballot in the mail, or when special activities are occurring," she said. "Nine times out of ten people are appreciative, especially of the reminders to vote."
Zirkelbach, however, disputes the effectiveness of robocalls, saying studies show they only have a one percent persuasive impact on voting behavior and are among the least effective methods of political communication. The bill is limited to political calls. "I'd like to expand it, but one thing at a time," he said, adding that he does not want restrictions that would inhibit public safety, such as announcements of school closings.
Political calls are exempt from most provisions of federal do-not-call legislation. People may tell a campaign or party not to call. But political parties are many-headed creatures, with multiple national, state and local level candidates and committees, and each one has its own list. Telling the Iowa Know-Nothing Party not to call is not the same as telling the Know-Nothing National Committee or the Pole Bean County Know-Nothing Party or the Millard Fillmore presidential campaign not to call.
Swisher says the unpopularity of robocalls brings up some larger questions. "We've become the kind of society where people resent you knocking on the door, or calling them at home, but honest communication about governing is important," she said. "Prohibitions are dangerously close to violating constitutional rights."
Zirkelbach disputes the constitutional concern. "I look at it as a privacy issue," he said. "It's harassment rather than free speech." Swisher, however, is unequivocal: "Political calls should be a protected form of speech."