Candidates Question Ethics of Campaign Robo-Calls

By Dave Franzman, Reporter

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa -- Thousands of potential eastern Iowa voters heard a recorded voice on the line in the days leading up to Tuesday's election. And now some candidates who got the brunt of those attack "robocalls" in this most recent election are speaking out about the issue.

State Senate District 18 winner Liz Mathis got hit by the most highly publicized last minute robocall. A group identified only as Citizens for Honesty and Sound Marriage urged voters in a recorded phone message to ask Mathis "which gay sex act she endorses?" But in that highly-charged state senate race, those recorded calls may have backfired.

An outside poll just days before voting showed Democrat Mathis leading Republican Cindy Golding by about six points. Her final margin of victory Tuesday night was double that.

Mathis, though, wasn't sure if you could make a connection between the controversial robocalls and a higher margin of victory.

"There are a lot of other factors other than a negative robocall that would come into that and there's a plus or minus error in each poll. So I wouldn't bank on that too much," Mathis said.

Megan Tooker, executive director of the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, said she's fielded a number of calls about some of the automated political phone messages in eastern Iowa. Tooker said under Iowa law, television, radio and newspaper ads must carry a disclaimer telling who paid for the political message. And candidates must also report expenditures if they use automated messages in their own behalf. But that rule doesn't apply to outside groups that make automated robocalls if they fall under two categories.

The calls must be about issues and not solicit a vote for a particular candidate and the group must not spend more than $750 or a campaign disclosure statement is required.

Marion Mayor candidate Nick Glew, a loser in Tuesday's election, was the target of one last-minute robocall. The call alleged Glew, a member of the Marion City Council, had a conflict of interest by virtue of his city service and his employment with Anderson Bogart Engineers. That company that has some current contracts with the city. Glew called the robocall a "low blow" but said there was "not much you can do about it."

Commercial Realtor Scott Olson, who narrowly won election to the Cedar Rapids City Council District 4 seat, also was the target of automated political calling in the last days before the election.

Olson said the automated call distorted the facts about his record, employment and board memberships and because it came so late in the race there was no real way to respond to the charges. He said he was also disappointed because he believed all four candidates in his district race had agreed not to use such tactics.

"There's nothing wrong with having a difference of opinion," Olson said adding "but to leave in a voice message half truths or partial reality or inferences...is not fair to the entities or the candidates."

Olson said he's not surprised to see robocalling in state or even district political races. But he was somewhat surprised to see it employed in a local race like the city council campaign.

But Doug Wagner, a political consultant who sells robocalling services to candidates and nonprofit groups, said voters should expect to see more of it in the future. Wagner said the explanation is simple–it's a relatively inexpensive way to campaign.

"If you don't have a lot of money, what you can do is use an automated call system to reach out to thousands of people for as little as a dime per completed call," Wagner said.

Wagner also said it would be possible to put together what some might jokingly term a campaign disclosure special. He said he could probably offer someone calling services to up to 7,000 people and when state tax is figured in, the total would amount to $749.00—or just under the disclosure limit.

Tooker said one lawmaker from Dubuque introduced legislation in the last session to try to impose more regulations on the use of robocalling in campaigns. That proposed legislation went nowhere.
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