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California has strict rules for political robocalls — and they're routinely ignored

California has strict rules for political robocalls — and they're routinely ignored
State law says robocalls, including political ones, must begin with a live operator declaring the nature of the call and asking permission to play the recording. (Getty Images)

A federal district court judge ruled the other day that it's constitutional for Montana to ban political robocalls, even though political consultants who had sued the state claimed their right to free speech had been violated.

U.S. District Court Senior Judge Charles Lovell said Montana's law limiting political robocalls "still leaves ample means of communication for individuals and organizations." He also said the law prevents "the annoyance and harassment of Montanans in their households."

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That got me thinking, "Wow, why doesn't California have a cool law like that?"

So I looked into it. And you know what? We do.

Trouble is, it's a law that's ignored by just about every state candidate and political campaign.

"Politicians are deliberately evading the law to get their robocalls out," said Christine Mailloux, who heads the San Diego office of the Utility Reform Network, a statewide advocacy group.

"That should really make you wonder if these are the people we want representing us," she said.

It goes without saying that Californians are bombarded with political robocalls any time an election season rolls around. In virtually all cases, the robocall starts playing as soon as you answer the phone.

However, sections 2873 and 2874 of the California Public Utilities Code say all robocalls must begin with a live operator stating the nature of the call, as well as the name, address and phone number of the entity behind the robocall.

I'll bet you didn't know that. I didn't until I started rooting around the utilities code.

Moreover, the live operator must request your permission to play the robocall. Then and only then can the recording legally start.

Needless to say, I can't think of a single robocall to my home, political or otherwise, that met these criteria. Not one. Ever.

And there's a good reason: Most robocalls get around California's tough rules by originating from other states, beyond the reach of state officials.

Terrie Prosper, a spokeswoman for the Public Utilities Commission, said political robocalls originating within the state, and without a live operator, are permissible only when "a consumer has consented to receiving robocalls from a candidate or political party."

"A call originating outside of California," she said, "does not have to meet California's law."

In that case, federal law applies. But that's not much help.

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The Federal Communications Commission says political robocalls can't be made to cellphones, but are "permissible when made to landline telephones, even without prior express consent."

Many households no longer have landlines. But millions still do.

"That's how California politicians can break the state's own rules," Mailloux said.

This is, of course, about as sleazy a political practice as you'll find, especially when you consider that nearly all these robocalls are from people who say they want to uphold state law.

According to the PUC, the only entities that can legally leap right into a robocall without the introduction of a live operator are schools, banks, cable companies (only for scheduling appointments), utilities, police and fire departments, or agencies making public safety or emergency warnings.

Robocalls also can skip the live intro if they're from "a known party, business party, customer or any other person the call recipient has a relationship or understanding with."

Although the PUC says political robocalls "must follow relevant state and federal laws," this is obviously a sham.

Politicians can easily choose not to follow state laws by using an out-of-state call center, and federal laws say they can robocall you with impunity, as long as it's to a landline.

What's the solution? It would be for Sacramento to pass an amendment requiring all political robocalls for state campaigns to originate within California, thus keeping them under state rules.

The likelihood of that happening?

Press 1 for "fat chance." Press 2 for "when hell freezes over."

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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