ANNAPOLIS – A few days before the Maryland primary, Theodore and Beatrice Hirsh returned to their home in Baltimore from a six-day vacation and found 31 messages on their answering machine.
Only four of the calls were from friends. The other 27 were pre-recorded messages from politicians urging the couple to vote.
The Hirshes deleted every political message without listening.
“It’s a real pain in the telephone,” said Theodore Hirsh, an attorney. “If I keep getting more, I will vote against them on those grounds.”
For years, political campaigns have used so-called “robo-calls” to reach voters. Because the calls are cheap — they typically cost about 5 cents a dial — and require almost no manpower, they are an appealing alternative to phone banks and campaigning door-to-door.
But this year, an unusually large number of contested elections in Maryland and increased use of automated calling have combined to create a volume of calls that has overwhelmed – and infuriated – some voters.
“It’s a continuous bombardment,” said Elkridge resident Scott Young. “We’ve stopped answering the phone altogether.”
Because the calls are popular with local, state and national candidates alike, it isn’t uncommon for a household to receive half a dozen calls a day before an election.
Young, a social studies teacher at a middle school in Frederick County, said he and his wife received about 10 calls a day in the weeks before the primary, “and who knows how many more we didn’t pick up.”
Though politicians say they only want to inform voters, many of those voters said they hang up immediately after they realize they are listening to a recording. Some said the calls changed their votes– that is, they were convinced to vote against robo-calling candidates as a kind of revenge.
Elkridge resident Jeff Johnson, a Department of Defense employee, said he began writing down the names of candidates who sent him robo-calls so he could to vote for their opponents.
“They always come during dinner too,” he complained.
Most calls are placed between 5:30 and 6:30 in the evening — when people are usually home from work, but haven’t started dinner yet, campaign managers said.
Now that primaries are over, there are fewer candidates in the pool and the number of automated calls has diminished. But many Maryland candidates say they plan to send more calls as the November election nears.
“People enjoy being informed about what the campaign is doing,” said Rick Abbruzzese, a spokesman for Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley, the Democratic candidate for governor. He admitted, however, he had not personally received any feedback.
Abbruzzese said robo-calls are cheaper than campaigning by direct mail, television and radio. He knows robo-calling is successful, he said, because people turn out at campaign events after automated calls have been made in the area.
Shareese DeLeaver, a spokeswoman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich’s reelection campaign, said people are annoyed because calls are coming more frequently this election season due to the large number of candidates, not because campaigns are relying more on the calls.
But for Voice Broadcasting Corp., a Dallas company that has made robo-calls for 17 Maryland candidates this year, demand for the calls has increased almost 50 percent in the last five years.
Despite that, competition in the market has gone up, the company’s president said.
“You used to have door-to-door salesmen, which was ineffective and inefficient,” said the company’s president, Jeffrey Fournier. “Computers do everything else, so they might as well get involved in campaigning.”
Fournier, whose company serves hundreds of local, statewide and national campaigns, admitted the calls can be “offensive,” but said it’s not any more offensive than ads on television or radio.
“An interruption is an interruption,” he said.
Because political campaigning is protected by the U.S. Constitution, voters can’t evade robo-calls as they can commercial telemarketers by having their names added to the federal “Do Not Call List,” according to the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains the list.
“I tell consumers, if they get a call from someone they don’t want, tell the person not to call again,” said David Robbins, assistant director in the FTC’s bureau of consumer protection. “I would hope that the people placing the calls would stop calling those people.”
The calls, which typically last between 15 and 30 seconds, feature a recording of a candidate’s voice urging the listener to vote. Campaigns usually hire an outside company, like Voice Broadcasting, to place the calls.
Phone numbers typically come from voter registration lists and lists of campaign donors, politicians said.
“At the click of a button, you can reach out to tens of thousands of homes,” DeLeaver said. “It’s obviously less time-consuming [than other campaign methods.]”
Politicians admitted they had received complaints about the calls, but said the annoyance to voters is outweighed by the efficiency of the method and the personal touch of the candidate’s voice.
“Almost every major campaign uses it,” said Jacob Colker, a field director for state Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery, the Democratic candidate for state comptroller. “It’s the cheapest way to reach the most people.”
One key advantage of robo-calling is the ability to disseminate an urgent message in a short time. On the day of the Sept. 12 primary, for example, Franchot recorded and sent out a robo-call to Montgomery County voters, informing them county polls would stay open an hour late because of the glitches that had kept people from voting that morning.
Both the robo-callers and the campaigns they serve say they don’t know what percentage of their calls provoke an immediate hang up. Neither, they say, do they know how often and how strongly voters are swayed by the automated calls.
But they say they are sure robo-calls work, and they intend to keep using them. “Enjoy them, delete them, hang up on them, but know this: It’s part of the process to get you to get up and go to the polls,” said David Paulson, a spokesman for the Maryland Democratic Party.