Reeling in robocalls

Many people get robocalls around election time, those recorded phone messages trying to persuade folks to vote one way or another. Sometimes it’s clear who is behind them, but often they are anonymous attacks on a candidate or ballot measure.

A new bill in Olympia would put an end to that. 

“We all hate getting these calls,” state Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver, said.  “You want to know who is sponsoring them and who is putting forth that message.”

In Washington, if a candidate or ballot measure puts an ad on TV or in the newspaper or even does a mailing, there are clear rules. The ad has to identify who paid for it -- “John Doe for Governor,” for instance. 

But robocalls exist within a loophole in state law. There is no identification required. That’s because they emerged as a new technology since the current rules were written several years ago. And it’s a loophole that has been exploited. 

Around election time people have plenty of stories of nasty or ominous recorded calls or what are called “push polls,” which masquerade as surveys but are really calls to get recipients to like or hate some candidate or measure.

Pridemore is sponsoring a bill that would require any state campaign using robocalls to identify who is behind the ad, something like, “This message is brought to you by Yes on Initiative 1183.”

Most legislators agree with closing the loophole, even if they might have benefited from it at one point or another. However, there are some that worry about requiring too much identification information.

“Pretty soon you have used up 20 seconds of a 30-second phone call in the identification part,” said state Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver.  “You don’t have any time to get your message out.”

Benton favors requiring the name of the sponsor only.

The version of the bill that seems likely to get passed out of the Legislature this year will require robocalls to indicate the candidate or campaign’s name and its city and state.