It's a familiar experience: You've just sat down for dinner, and the phone rings with a long, recorded message urging you to vote for someone.
There could be more such calls in the future if an Iowa group associated with Republicans gets its way.
The American Future Fund's political action committee has asked the Federal Election Commission (FEC) to override portions of a 1987 Minnesota law that curb "robocalls," saying the restrictions infringe on federal laws overseeing campaign finance.
The state law requires campaigns to use live operators to introduce automated calls and get the consent of the person answering the phone to play them -- conditions that effectively discourage the practice.
"If you're a candidate without very much money, you can do an automated call from anywhere for 5 to 8 cents, depending on how long the call might be," said Nick Ryan, a spokesman for the American Future Fund. "Add a live operator to it, and you might have to pay a dollar."
Asked Friday about the effort to override the restrictions, the office of Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson defended the state law and said her office would formally register its opposition to the Iowa group's efforts today.
"We do not believe Minnesota ... is preempted by federal campaign finance law and expect to be submitting a letter to the FEC on Monday expressing our position," said attorney general spokesman Ben Wogsland. Opponents of lifting the state restrictions have until Thursday to contact the FEC, which is scheduled to issue an opinion by the end of December.
The FEC can't nullify state law but has power to issue advisory opinions about the legality of campaign practices in federal races. An opinion favorable to the American Future Fund could give it and other groups a green light to conduct automated calls for federal candidates in Minnesota without a live operator or the consent of the person answering the phone. It would not have an effect on state races.
At least one political observer thinks politicians of all stripes would secretly support clearing the way for more automated phone calls, regardless of what the public thinks.
"My suspicion is that attempts by the American Future Fund to end Minnesota's restrictions on robocalls would be met with great joy by campaigners and phone-bank folk within the parties," said Stacey Hunter Hecht, a professor of political science at Bethel University. "It gives them a 'fall guy' for such a change."
Political operatives have run up against the state law in the past. In 2000, the recorded voice of then-Gov. Jesse Ventura automatically clicked on when people answered their phones, and he was heard praising Tom Foley, an Independence Party candidate for Congress. Foley discontinued the calls after there were complaints that they may have been illegal under state law. He maintained that federal law allowed them.
The American Future Fund of Des Moines has been active nationwide in Republican causes, and its legally distinct political action committee in Virginia made the request posted last week by the FEC. It argued that restrictions in Minnesota and seven other states should be preempted by federal law because they interfered with campaign spending deemed lawful by the agency.
The organization is devoting much of its efforts to criticizing the health care proposals of President Obama and Democrats in Congress.
Pat Doyle • 651-222-1210