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yesh omrim

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Overdrawn at the phone bank

19 January 2010

I spent today volunteering for the Coakley campaign, helping it try and snatch victory from the jaws of defeat (after the Democratic Party spent a month going “jaws of defeat? what jaws of defeat? we can’t possibly lose!”—but every other liberal blog in the country has that rant). I told the Organizing for America coordinator that I was interested in canvassing, but not in making phone calls, because enough of my friends, not to mention my wife, had been complaining about the incessant phone calls. (What with the mayoral election in November, the special-Senate-election primary in December, and the election itself today, it has been the season for everybody and his brother to leave us a message explaining how So-and-So is the greatest politician since Pericles and could you please remember to vote on Tuesday.)

And hanging out at the office (of a union local that was participating in the campaign), waiting for the van to come pick up us canvassers, I talked to some of the other volunteers and some of the office staff, and they too were kinda sick of all the phone calls. And this was one of the offices from which people were making phone calls on behalf of the candidate. Seeing the instructions for those folks, I could imagine what kind of technology they were using on the back end; it’s sort of cool. A good Asterisk hacker could probably build it in a month or so.

The procedure for participating in the vote-for-Coakley phone bank went something like this:

  1. Call a certain toll-free number and type in your ID number on the telephone keypad.
  2. Listen to a tutorial on how the system works.
  3. When you hear a beep, it means you are connected to a real live person and not an answering machine. Say “hello” and go right into your vote-for-Coakley script.
  4. When the call is finished, do not hang up. Instead, press the star key.
  5. Then type in a code indicating the kind of response you got. (I don’t remember the numbers, but it was something like 1 for “hang up”, 2 for “I already voted”, 3 for “I haven’t voted but I will”… you get the idea.)
  6. You will automatically be connected to the next voter; go back to step 3.

So if you were, say, a college student in California who wanted to do something for the Massachusetts Senate race (on either side—I assume the Republicans have a similar system), but you had no money to donate, you couldn’t fly out to Massachusetts, and indeed you only had the occasional half-hour between classes… no problem! The party could give you their phone bank’s toll-free number, give you an ID number, and you could do your part to grease the wheels of democracy. And with this technology, a small staff could manage to get useful work out of hundreds (thousands?) of untrained passionate volunteers all over the country. Isn’t that great?

Maybe not.

By making each voter telephone contact so cheap for the caller, even as the irritation level for the callee has stayed constant, the whole enterprise of phone-banking is starting to resemble spam. The only difference is that when you get spam in your mailbox advertising organic penile-enhancement products, you don’t really know who sent it, so you delete it (or send it to your spam filter’s tuning system) and get on with your life. If you get spammed over the phone in the name of some political candidate, you remember that candidate’s name, and not necessarily favorably.

In preparation for next fall’s Congressional elections, party committees would do themselves a big favor by deciding how many times they really needed to contact each voter by phone, setting themselves a limit, and publically pledging not to go over that limit. In some districts, this sort of discipline might force them to turn away volunteers—telling them “if all you can do for us is make phone calls, sorry, we already have enough people to reach everyone we need and we don’t want to overdo it”. It might be hard to turn down free labor, but this is a freebie that comes with a hidden cost.