Maddening robocalls for voters

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Published: November 13,2011

Tags: election, Phil Hardwick, Politics, robocalls

The election is over and the robocalls have stopped. Well, at least the political robocalls have stopped. Those annoying, but effective, calls are just another example of how technology is influencing our lives, making businesses and other organizations more productive and having an effect on the unemployment rate.

During the week before the recent election I must have received at least a half-dozen robocalls per day asking me to vote for either a certain candidate or for or against a certain initiative. The calls sometimes contained the voices of the candidates themselves, but more often than not they were infested with the voice of another politician, usually an elected official, asking me to vote for a certain candidate so that “we can work together” to either stop some political movement or to move forward on certain issues. After a while, these calls got so annoying that it was tempting to vote against the candidate responsible for the calls. One state senator capitalized on this by sending out e-mail messages to supporters offering “another reason to vote for” the senator was that he did not do robocalls. A local political commentator tweeted his disdain for robocalls by saying that if he received another robocall he would call politicians at 4 a.m. every day for a week after the election.

Are political robocalls effective? It depends on whom you ask. Yale political science professors Donald Green and Alan Gerber have been studying voter mobilization efforts for the past 10 years and have conducted about a dozen experiments explicitly examining the effects of robocalls, according to an online CNET News Oct. 23, 2008, article entitled “Election Day brings invasion of robocalls.” Green said there is no evidence that robocalls are effective if paired with political mailings.

“Robocalls have a perfect record of never having mobilized anybody,” Green said. “One has to have a very naive view of voter psychology to think that would have an enduring effect on vote choice.”

Perhaps robocalls do not have an effect on voter choice, but I suspect that they have a significant effect on voter turnout. I deduce that is what robocalls are really all about. And they are inexpensive. No wonder candidates use them. The Internet is full of ads offering robocalls for as little as two cents each.

Political robocalls are but one little planet in the galaxy of robocalls. Automobile dealers, credit card companies and vacation resorts are also big users of robocalls. And just how do they get by with getting around the so-called “Do Not Call” laws that provide for Do Not Call registries? Take a look at the small print next time you sign up for a mailing list or buy certain products online. You may discover that you have authorized affiliated or related companies to provide you with offers and services either online or by telephone. You may have just exempted a bunch of companies from the Do Not Call laws.

Robocalls are also just one example of how technology is changing the way sellers and buyers interact with each other. Consider how transactions in our daily lives have been affected by technology over the past 30 years.

In the past, it was common to drive in to a gasoline station and sit in the vehicle while a person put gas in the tank, checked the oil, cleaned the windshield and then collected cash or a credit card in payment for the transaction. Consumers now drive in, insert a credit or debit card into a slot and put gasoline into their cars themselves. It is not uncommon to see only one attendant at a 16-pump gasoline station.

Grocery stores now offer self-checkout lanes for customers who do not want to wait in line. Many do not remember what it was like to check out before laser technology.

Technology has affected the airline industry to the extent that the customer deals with a computer screen either at home or at a kiosk for most every aspect of the process. Travelers are touched only by the TSA personnel (Sorry, I could not resist).

And consider what technology has done to banking transactions. Some banks are still saying that banking is about “personal relationships” even though it is possible to do just about every banking transaction at an ATM machine or online. In many cases, even the loan process has become so automated and technology-driven that the judgment factor of the individual banker and “the committee” no longer applies.

So is all of this a bad thing? Of course not. Most customers prefer it. Who wants to wait in line or deal with surly, unknowledgeable clerks? And it makes businesses more efficient and productive.

But some observers point out that the downside of technology and increased productivity is that fewer employees are needed to process transactions. The result is an increase in unemployment. On the other hand, it is pointed out that the increase in unemployment is primarily in low-skill service jobs. But that is only partly true if one looks at what technology has done to employment in the manufacturing industry where robots are now doing many jobs that were once done by humans.

In summary, technology has replaced person-to-person contact in everything from political robocalls to retail transactions. There are positive and negative implications for consumers — and voters.

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