Attorney General Steve Carter has told the Indiana Democratic and Republican parties that a 1988 state law prohibits automated phone calls for political purposes, something political organizations have done here for years.
"With Labor Day fast approaching, I wanted to give you an opportunity to review this law and encourage the various entities, and campaigns, associated with your organizations to comply with its requirements," Carter, a Republican, wrote in an Aug. 22 letter addressed to the two major party chairmen.
"The Office of the Attorney General continues to actively enforce Indiana's telemarketing laws," the letter said. "My hope is that some advance notice will help avoid violations this fall."
State Democratic Chairman Dan Parker said the timing of the notice was "mysterious," since most provisions of the law were enacted more than 18 years ago and the Nov. 7 election is drawing near.
"It's just kind of surprising that two months before a major election that this is his most important issue," Parker said. "Both parties have traditionally used this to reach out to our base and get folks to vote."
Parker said he was having an attorney research the law, but the party would not make automated calls for now.
State GOP Chairman Murray Clark also said the Indiana Republican Party had used such calls in past get-out-the-vote efforts, but had not done so this year. He said now that Carter was taking an active interest in the law, he should pursue what Clark called "shadow groups" who use automated calls to make egregious claims in attacking candidates.
Based on Carter's comments in Smith's report, the AG's office has ignored enforcement of the law in the past. But the enactment of the state's no-call list law initiated and administered by Carter's office has heightened the public's attention to telephone privacy. Smith writes:
Carter said his office has been aware of the law, but was issuing the notice now because many in the public have become more sensitive about telephone privacy since Indiana's do-not-call law took effect in January 2002. The law prohibits most telemarketers from calling Indiana residents who are registered on a no-call list administered by Carter's office.
Carter said complaints to his office about automated calls have increased, and as he has traveled the state, many people have asked whether he could do anything about them. He said he did not know whether the parties and campaigns were aware of the prohibitions "and wanted to give them fair notice of it."
The law Carter cited in his letter is the Regulation of Automatic Dialing Machines Act, which applies to devices that select and dial telephone numbers and disseminate a prerecorded or synthesized voice message. Those subject to the law include individuals, corporations, limited liability companies, partnerships and unincorporated associations.
Although the law has exemptions for governmental entities and for persons who consent to such calls, political parties and candidates are not exempted. Violations of the law constitutes a Class C misdemeanor punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine. It is incredible that both parties have been allowed to wilfully violate this law for nearly 18 years. Why have Carter and his predecessors refused to enforce this law? Political considerations? More than likely.
So why Carter's sudden interest in enforcing the law now? There's no doubt that people who are on the no-call list are upset that these calls are being made as Carter indicates. However, what happened in New Hampshire in the 2002 election might have also been an impetus for his action.
While automated phone calls are traditionally used to promote a party or a candidate, an effort by the Republicans in New Hampshire during the 2002 election used automated phone calls to jam phone lines of the Democratic Party and certain labor unions in order to hinder the Democrat's get-out-the-vote effort there. Several Republican party workers, including at least one tied to the Republican National Committee, have been convicted of crimes under federal communications law. Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) narrowly won election to the Senate that year, and Democrats think the phone jamming operation of the Republicans made his victory possible.
By putting the parties on notice, it's a pretty safe bet that nobody is going to use robo-calls this year for GOTV efforts, to jam another party's or candidate's phone lines, or as GOP state chairman Clark complained, to make egregious attacks on opponents.