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Do political robocalls work?

A volunteer makes phone bank calls to voters in front of an election countdown calendar at a Democratic Party office in Albuquerque, New Mexico, U.S., November 5, 2018.
REUTERS/Brian Snyder
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  • Alexandra Ossola
By Alexandra Ossola

Special projects editor

In an election expected to turn our record numbers of voters, some actors are doing their best to keep voters home. Voters and government agencies in several battleground states, such as Florida, Kansas, Michigan, Massachusetts, Ohio, California, and North Carolina, have reported receiving automated phone calls on election day (Nov. 3) encouraging people not to go to the polls, or to go tomorrow, when votes won’t be counted. Some of the most common, which tens of thousands of Americans may have received, tell them to “stay safe and stay home.”

Voters who heed the baseless warnings in these calls may lose their opportunity to cast their vote.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Communications Commission told Reuters they were aware of these reports. It’s not immediately clear if these types of calls are prohibited. The FCC has very specific rules around political robocalls—they can be made without prior consent to landlines, for example, but need approval to contact cell phones. However, voter intimidation is a violation of federal law.

But voters have likely been receiving campaign-driven robocalls about the upcoming election for months. Despite attempts to rid phone lines of robocalls via legislation and legal challenges, political robocalls seem to have found a legal loophole to allow for their continued existence, as an expression of First Amendment rights to free speech.

Robocalls for political purposes are quite common—nearly 60% of voters in swing states, and 47% overall, received a robocall leading up to the 2008 election, a year in which robocalls were the most common type of political outreach. It seems likely that they have become more common since then, especially if you count automated text messages; one company estimates that Americans received 70 million robocalls and nearly 3 billion text messages in September alone.

The question, though, is do they work—that is, do robocalls accomplish what the organizations behind them intend?

Almost all the research on robocall efficacy has addressed whether they encourage people to go vote—and they’re not all that effective by that measure, says Adam Zelizer, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. “There are a lot of studies on this. The effects of robocalls are typically quite small. It’s one of the least effective ways for a campaign to mobilize voters,” he says.

“If these [messages] are delivered by robocalls, they have an almost perfect record of never working,” says Donald Green, a political science professor at Columbia University, adding that past studies have indicated that get-out-the-vote efforts work about 0.1% of the time.

But while they don’t work that well, robocalls are cheap, about one cent per minute. “And if it’s a close race, why not [throw some money at them],” Zelizer says. Spending that money on digital ads would be much more easily traceable, Green notes.

Calls like those being placed to voters today—telling people to vote after the election was over—have been used in the past, Zelizer says. But academics don’t know how effective those were at suppressing voters, because it’s not ethical to partner with a group that placed the calls, which would be necessary to properly study how they affected outcomes.

This year, getting voters to stay home might be more effective than usual, as the pandemic makes going to the polls is particularly risky. Still, the efforts don’t seem like they would work. “It would have to defy a lot of the basic features of messaging, both about voter turnout and the pandemic, in order to work,” Green says.

Hopefully, warnings on Twitter, in the media, and from government organizations can help voters understand what’s going on. “You would hope or think that if people are curious about these calls and Google them, they’d eliminate their efficacy,” Zelizer says.

This article has been updated to include comments from Donald Green. 

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