MISSOULA — A slew of last-minute unsolicited robocalls and texts imploring Montana voters to support particular candidates has prompted a handful of complaints to the Montana Office of Political Practices in the final hours leading up to the statewide special congressional election.
Robocalls are illegal in Montana unless they also feature a live operator who obtains permission from the called party before the message is delivered. The Republican National Committee paid for robocalls featuring the pre-recorded voices of President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence in support of Republican Greg Gianforte, seeking to become Montana’s lone U.S. congressman.
Gianforte is battling Democrat Rob Quist and Libertarian Mark Wicks in Thursday's special election to replace Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s vacated spot.
According to the Republican National Committee, all the robocalls with Pence and Trump featured a live operator. A spokesman for the RNC said that they spent extra money to pay for live callers to comply with Montana law.
“Hi, this is President Donald Trump and I know what the people of Montana really want and really care about," Trump said in the robocall. "If you don't vote tomorrow, the liberal Democrats running for Congress will decimate and dismantle all that we've done. So get to the polls and vote for Greg. That's Greg Gianforte, you'll be very proud of him for years to come. Thanks a lot!"
Montana voters also have been getting text messages from the Quist campaign. One typical transcript of the text reads:
“Hi, I’m ____ a volunteer for Rob Quist in MT. I’m worried about the 70k Montanans who will lose their health care if Gianforte wins. Do you have any questions about the election?”
Pence’s robocall message was similar to Trump’s, except for his name in the message.
According to the RNC, a live operator would read from the following transcript before playing the message:
“Hello, I’m ___ calling from the Republican National Committee. May I play you a recorded message from President Donald Trump about the upcoming special election?”
If the called party answers "yes," then the recorded message plays. If the called party answers "no" or gives no response, the message says: “This call was paid for by the Republican National Committee, not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. www.gop.com.”
Montana Office of Political Practices commissioner Jeff Mangan said that his office has received “more than 10 but less than 100” general complaints about the robocalls.
“We’ve gotten lots of calls,” he said. “But it’s outside our jurisdiction.”
Robocalls are not under the jurisdiction of the COPP because they are classified under criminal code statute “Offenses Against Public Order,” Montana Code Annotated 45-8-216.
So even if the content is political, the complaints are handled by local law enforcement officials. The Missoula County Attorney’s Office did not return a phone call seeking comment on Wednesday. Because this race is for a federal seat, complaints about political violations would be handled by the Federal Elections Commission.
“This particular race is outside our purview,” Mangan said. “We’ve been referring folks to local law enforcement or city attorney.”