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. “Well south of 1% respond to the get out the vote effect.”
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.
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. 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.