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Published: Monday, 3/3/2008

If you're annoyed, press 1

AS THE presidential election year heats up through the primaries, into the national conventions, and up to Nov. 4, voters are at the mercy of political campaigns relentlessly pushing for support. One of the more grating ways political operatives hammer home a message about candidates or issues is with automated telephone calls to private residences.

Fortunately for besieged voters, a bipartisan measure has been introduced in the Senate. The bill by Democrats Dianne Feinstein of California and Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, and Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania aims not to ban but curtail the annoying tele-tactic known as "robocalls."

The prerecorded calls, dialed from a phone bank to countless telephone numbers, often ramble on and on about a candidate's positions, an opponent's shortfalls, and the importance of getting out to vote.

Generally, the phone rings when you've just sat down for dinner or, worse, after you've gone to bed. Complaints about such calls have been reported nationwide.

Senate testimony included an example of a single home that was bombarded with more than two dozen calls from two Republican candidates ahead of the Feb. 5 California primary. "During this primary season," said Senator Feinstein, "we have heard stories about people being called over and over again at all hours of the night."

She maintains that "reasonable" restrictions on robocalls are necessary to address the worst. Known as the Robocall Privacy Act of 2008, the bill would establish guidelines that anyone who makes or sets up the calls would have to follow, with fines of up to $3,000 per violation.

No calls would be permitted after 9 p.m. or before 8 a.m., and no more than two calls to the same phone number would be allowed in one day. Moreover, all robocallers would have to say up front that their call is recorded and who is behind it.

The new rules would apply only to robocalls related to candidates running for federal office, which covers their supporters and opponents alike. Besides the Federal Election Committee being empowered to fine violators, residents could also sue to stop the calls.

A campaign version of the "do not call list" that stops obnoxious commercial calls would be a nice alternative, but political speech comes with First Amendment protection that rules out a complete ban. So the Senate measure is at least a sensible compromise.

It would put political operatives on notice that abuse of such tele-tactics before an election comes with consequences that cost more than the vote of an annoyed recipient.

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