Tired of political robocalls, voters such as Dan Tynan are fighting fire with fire.
“This is a robocall. Not much fun, is it?” Tynan said in a recent prerecorded message to lawmakers, which he delivered through a new online tool called Reverse Robocall.
Launched last month, Reverse Robocall has already helped individuals and advocacy groups make nearly 2,000 calls to lawmakers, politicians and private companies. Most callers pay between $1, the cost to reach a single lawmaker, and $35, the price to robocall the offices of every Member of Congress. Customers record their message on the website, and the service then calls the numbers and plays the recordings. The service does not allow phone calls to Members’ personal or home phones.
Some of the calls are straightforward advocacy on issues such as the defense budget. Others serve as a form of poetic justice for robocall recipients sick of their phones ringing.
“Rep. Michele Bachmann, my name is Rev. Rodney Ehlers,” said one message addressed to the Minnesota Republican and presidential hopeful. “As a result of your telephone call, I will not be voting for you or considering you as a candidate. I encourage you to please stop this form of advertising.”
But for co-founders Shaun Dakin and Aaron Titus, Reverse Robocall is more than just a tool for revenge. The duo launched the service as a way of easing citizen advocacy while speaking up on an issue close to both their hearts.
Last winter, Titus made robocalls to board members of his children’s school district after being woken up early in the morning by a robocall weather advisory.
Dakin’s gripe with robocalls dates back to the 2004 presidential campaign, when he was making calls on behalf of Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry (Mass.). Caller after caller chewed Dakin out.
“They said, I’m going to vote for [President George W.] Bush because I’m so sick of these calls,” Dakin recalled in an interview with Roll Call.
He stopped making calls, and three years later he launched a national do-not-call registry for political robocalls. Several dozen politicians, including Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), voluntarily agreed not to call people on the list during the 2008 and 2010 elections.
After Titus’s school board episode, he and Dakin got together to launch Reverse Robocall, which they see as a way to increasing awareness about the annoyance of robocalls.
“They’re essentially phone spam,” Dakin said, adding that unlike e-mail spam, phone calls are invasive. “The phone is incredibly disruptive to people’s lives.”
Since becoming a one-man crusader against robocalls, Dakin said he has received calls from night-shift workers whose daytime naps keep getting disrupted and from children of elderly patients who get confused by the calls.
“It’s more than just a little inconvenience,” Dakin said.
In addition to the robocall website, Dakin has joined privacy advocates to fight a House bill that would allow debt collectors and other private businesses to robocall cellphones. On the Reverse Robocall site, Dakin created a page so voters can call the bill’s backers, including the American Bankers Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and express their feelings. (Callers are free to advocate for either side.)
Dakin has also worked with the office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to introduce the Robocall Privacy Act, a perennial bill designed to set some limits on political robocalls. It has yet to pass, and Dakin isn’t holding his breath.
“Politicians just want no shackles when it comes to winning campaigns,” he said.
Congress and the courts are unlikely to impose any restrictions either, given the value they place on free political speech. And though there’s little evidence that robocalls have any effect on voters, they remain a cheap and popular tool in elections — one that is likely to be used in many battleground states in the next year.
But this time, it won’t just be the politicians recording them. As Titus put it, “I figure since they like robocalls so much, they wouldn’t mind getting one from me.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., carries a musket on stage as he speaks during the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at National Harbor, Md., on Thursday March 6, 2014.