Is the war on robocalls destroying American democracy?
The level of robocalling has reached saturation. Many ignore any number they do not recognize. But that very action may hurt us more than it helps.
America has declared war on irritating, illegal robocalls.
Technical upgrades available from all major cellphone carriers enable users to block the billions of telemarketing, spam and spoofing calls that interrupt and intrude on our lives each year. A new Apple iOS feature released recently can send any caller not on the mobile phone’s contact list directly to voicemail.
It’s hard to see a downside. Surprisingly, though, the unintended victim may be democracy.
Mixed in among the illegal and the annoying calls about student loan relief, credit card debt and computer scams are the calls from pollsters — the folks who collect your political views, your health data and your opinions on a host of societal issues.
Not all calls are created equal
That’s why it’s critical to employ the same advances in technology that block the intrusive robocalls to ensure that researchers who want your opinion can get through. The American Association for Public Opinion Research and other organizations advocate for whitelisting research numbers, by both telecommunications operators and third-party apps, so legitimate polling isn’t lumped in with illegitimate telemarketers.
Maybe you find research and polling calls annoying, too. You may think that you exercise your civic duty at the ballot box every few years and don’t need to waste your time talking to a pollster.
In a democracy, though, the voice of the people has real power. Politicians, government officials and even corporations pay close attention to public opinion polls to set policy, allocate taxpayer money and make decisions about how to conduct their business.
Political scientists who study U.S. democracy have found hundreds of instances in the past 50 years where public opinion polling has helped hold politicians accountable, including driving lawmakers to rethink their stance the Vietnam War and more recently, on same-sex marriage legislation.
Take a look at the numbers: Nearly 3 weeks into the Trump impeachment inquiry, polls show a shift in public opinion
When data collectors working on behalf of the Centers for Disease Control call and ask about your health, your answers help them learn how many Americans have cancer or Alzheimer’s disease or health insurance. The information they collect helps government officials decide what resources your community needs, whether that means more hospital beds or more nurses.
If you get a call from the Bureau of Labor Statistics asking about the groceries or clothes you just bought, you’re helping Americans get a better picture of their spending and consumption habits. That data contributes to a key indicator of inflation — the Consumer Price Index — which has a direct effect on wages and the cost of goods and services.
Response rates have fallen dramatically
Public opinion polling faces growing challenges. Response rates for all telephone-based surveys have been on the decline. Americans are so angered by incessant telemarketing calls and scams that any unknown caller is now met with suspicion. The ability to screen or block calls helps us all avoid the irritation of the scammer or robocall, but it also keeps us from heeding the call of democracy.
That minor disruption in your day — yes, we know it’s dinner time — is the most efficient and effective chance for you to have your voice heard, to influence your city council or your legislature or Congress. It’s an impartial way to get an accurate, reliable read on what Americans think.
If you block every number you don’t know, you’ll miss your chance to influence the people in power.
Don't fire the pollsters: Trump doesn't get it. Bad news can save a campaign
We must rid ourselves of illegal telemarketing and robocalls, but without losing our opportunity to contribute to American democracy. When the researcher calls, I urge you to answer the call. Research finds that while most people start a poll begrudgingly, in the end they’re glad they participated.
It feels good to be heard in an American democracy.
David Dutwin is past president of the American Association for Public Opinion Research, a senior fellow at the Program for Opinion Research and Election Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and has been a leading methodologist and survey scientist at multiple survey research organizations.