The Vermont News Guy

Hold the Phone

Did you get robo-called this week?

If not, whatÂ’s wrong with you?

It seems that almost everybody who is anybody in Vermont got the calls, by opponents of the gay marriage bill, and some folks were plenty miffed about it. They complained to their local newspaper or the Secretary of StateÂ’s office, in some cases suspecting political dirty tricks .
In the blogosphere in and out of Vermont appeared allegations that the National Organization for Marriage, which organized the automated telephone calls, was a “front group” established by the Mormon Church.

But robo-calls, which are used by candidates and causes across the ideological spectrum, are legal, and the NOM seems to have followed the rules by identifying itself at the end of the calls. ThatÂ’s being transparent, not sneaky.

As to “front groups,” they, too, are legal and used across the political spectrum. Whether this one was started by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints is open to debate. If so, the Church appears to have violated no law.

None of which means that the calls do not portend some difficult days ahead here. Perhaps Vermonters should fasten their seat belts. The state could be in for a politically bumpy 18 months.

Not because there is anything necessarily wrong (though there is certainly something aggravating) with robo-calls. But because they are a sign that political big bucks from outside the state may be coming into it, increasing the likelihood that the discussion over this contentious issue will get more intense, and possibly much more divisive.

The likely impending defeat of the same-sex marriage bill (it passed the House, but with not enough votes to override Gov. Jim DouglasÂ’s promised veto) means that the issue will stay front-and-center until Election Day, 2010. In fact, it might be only a slight exaggeration to suggest that the political campaigns – for governor and for the Legislature – began last night. Considering all the economic and budget battles, itÂ’s too early to say that gay marriage will be the dominant issue. But it will be a big one.

So far this year, outside operatives and outside money have played a relatively minor role in the marriage debate, a smaller role than during the civil unions debate of 2000.
That may not last. Pro gay-marriage forces from California and elsewhere are planning activities throughout the Northeast in coming months

Whether or not the National Organization of Marriage is a creature of the Mormon Church, it is allied with it, and with its prodigious fund-raising powers. The robo-calls of this week were cheap. NOM has the capacity to do much more. In last yearÂ’s contentious Proposition 8 campaign in California, which overturned a state Supreme Court decision authorizing gay marriage, NOM spent more than $1 million.

Whatever the specific impact of this weekÂ’s robo-calls, their presence indicates that NOM is likely to continue to be active here. In raw numbers, the dollars spent here will not approach California levels. But they could be more than enough to change the way politics is conducted in Vermont, perhaps just for this election cycle, perhaps for longer.

Nor are the proponents of gay marriage likely to be outspent. This is a battle in which both armies have roughly equal access to money and equal passionate commitment to their cause.
No one expects Beth Robinson and her Vermont Freedom to Marry allies to stop fighting. They got a huge majority in the Senate and a substantial one in the House. Only one office-holder stands between them and victory. They will go after him. So far this year, their side has dominated the debate inside the stateÂ’s borders. ItÂ’s the opponents who need more outside help. These robo-calls could be the first sign that they are going to get it.

Robo-calls are legal, Constitutionally protected political activity. They are also probably a waste of time and money.

Yale University Professor Donald Green, the co-author of a book on the subject (Get out the Vote: How To Increase Voter Turnout Brookings Institute, 2008), said studies show that robo-calls do nothing to increase voter turnout, and you “don’t see that much effect on persuasion, either.”

Robo-calls are inexpensive, he said, and politicians who use them are “hoping to get a small effect by paying small amount of money.” But the effect is so small, he said, that even in close races it was not clear that robo-calling was decisive. According to an article in Newsweek last October, half the people who get robo-calls hang up in the first ten seconds.

ItÂ’s hard to see how the calls could have been decisive for last nightÂ’s vote in the Vermont House of Representatives. The final count was pretty much what had been predicted before the calls began. House members had already been deluged by letters, emails and personal visits from their constituents. ItÂ’s hard to believe that any of them didnÂ’t know what the voters wanted.
Robo-calls can be and have been used for political dirty tricks. Often they provide false information about an opposing candidate, or are used as part of a “push poll,” in which respondents are asked questions such as, “would you vote for John Jones if you knew he approved of terrorism.”

But that’s not what the NOM robo-calls did. They urged people who answered the phones to call their legislators (providing the name and phone number of the representative) urging them to “support Governor Jim Douglas” in opposing the same-sex marriage bill.
Then, to comply with federal law, the message identified the calling organization and provided a telephone number, 804-934-1092, in Richmond, Virginia.

NOM does not seem to have violated any Vermont regulation, either. As of yesterday, it had not yet registered as a lobbyist, which it would have to do if it spent more than $500 (not on the calls, but on staff time arranging for the Vermont robo-call operation), according to Kathy DeWolfe, head of the Secretary of StateÂ’s Election Division.

As to the NOM-Mormon connection, Maggie Gallagher, NOMÂ’s president, says there is none.
“We’re an inter-faith, secular, organization,” she said. We have Protestants, Mormons, Catholics, Jews, and if you know any atheists who are against same-sex marriage I’d love to talk to them.”
Besides, she said, “there’s no reason why people involved in churches can’t help found secular organizations. There would be nothing underhanded in any church helping to found secular or interfaith organizations.”

The claim that the Mormon Church did start NOM comes from Fred Karger of Californians Against Hate, which opposed the California proposition that outlawed gay marriage. On the organization’s web site, Karger wrote, ” the Mormon church appears to have created the National Organization for Marriage… as a Mormon front group, exactly as they did with a very similar organization called Hawaii’s Future Today (HFT) in that state in 1995.”
Karger has obtained copies of letters from high-ranking Church officials which seem to demonstrate that the Church was instrumental in setting up the Hawaii group. But his most recent letter is from 1998. Gallagher said N
was founded only two years ago. There are prominent Mormons in its hierarchy, but its chairman of the board is Robert P. George , the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, and a well-known conservative Catholic intellectual. NOM is based in Princeton.

But the similarity between the Hawaii outfit and NOM, while not conclusive proof that the Church set up NOM, at least suggests a connection. Top officials of the LDS Church have been working against gay marriage for more than a decade, and not just as individuals; the Church as an institution has been part of the effort. There seems to be little doubt that the Church and NOM worked together in California, where the Church took a leading role in campaigning for Proposition 8.

Because political robo-calls do not try to sell anything or raise money, they are not subject to the national “Do Not Call” system coordinated by the Federal Communications Commission. But there is a voluntary National Political Do Not Contact Registry with which people can register.
Elsewhere, the Swedish Parliament approved same-sex marriage in that country by a vote of 261 to 22