August 17, 2009

Last year I participated in my first-ever Washington State Democratic Caucuses. In other states, I had been used to primary elections conducted very much like general elections: I'd go to a polling place, step into a booth, vote privately, pull the Giant Lever of Democracy, and go home. Washington's Democrats have a different idea: they herded everyone in my neighborhood into a church basement where each voter wrote his/her name, address, phone number, and candidate of choice on a grid visible to everyone. After an initial count, there's even the option for neighbors to debate each other to sway votes from one candidate to another. It was an utter mess that in some precincts took hours to resolve.

More recently, I've seen an even uglier side to this perverse flavor of democracy: because I put my phone number down right next to my candidate of choice, the local Democratic Party has decided to sell my information to all sorts of other organizations. I was okay when the party called me a dozen times on Election Day to get out the vote, but now I'm getting robocalls from "independent" organizations.

Here's one robocall from "Qualified Leadership for Seattle," a nebulous organization backed by four unions and local real estate überdeveloper Vulcan, Inc. Here's another. Thanks to GrandCentral, which is now called "Google Voice," for letting me record these telemarketing calls. I've received two other telemarketing calls on my Google Voice number, one of which is from "Qualified Leadership from Seattle," in the last week. I've only given this number to take-out food places that expect a local phone number, to my landlord so that my intercom works, and to the Washington State Democratic Party.

Seattle, like King County and nearly all other counties in Washington, now votes entirely by mail, in private. Unsatisfied with letting neighbors fight each other for political superiority, the Washington State Democratic Party is now selling its voter information to shadowy organizations to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt about leading Mayoral candidate Joe Mallahan, a T-Mobile executive. It's unclear whether these organizations want voters to re-elect Mayor Greg Nickels, a man who believed Seattle ought not to clear snow from its streets in any effective way, or whether they want novelty environmentalist candidate Mike McGinn to win. All I get is negative rhetoric, and it's my own fault for receiving the calls. There is no opt-out offered by the recordings I receive.

I've written to the Washington State Democratic Party requesting a halt to the phone calls. I've also sent recordings of the calls to Shaun Dakin, an anti-robocall activist who requested them of me via Twitter, who has circulated them more widely. Dakin runs the unofficial National Political Do Not Contact Registry (NPDNC), which aims to block political calls in the way the National Do Not Call Registry blocks non-political telemarketing calls. The NPDNC Registry has gathered little support so far, but I hope it becomes more useful as the backlash against robocalls accelerates.

Because they come from political organizations, these robocalls are still legal even though I'm on the National Do Not Call Registry. These slimy, shadowy callers are really making me think twice about caucusing again in Washington in 2012. Why exactly am I supposed to give up my phone number to vote?