Cellphones pose hangup for voter outreach

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A political meeting last Saturday emphasized getting out the vote while avoiding any favoritism toward any individual candidate or issue. Much of the discussion focused on how to contact potential voters.

That discussion progressed to the problem of getting voters to answer the telephone. The talk foreshadowed the coming obsolescence of a device that once we all depended upon. It was apparent in the meeting that no one loves the traditional telephone anymore. Many, perhaps most, residents don’t bother to answer their landline phones at all (if they still are connected to the wired system). They don’t answer their cellphones if they don’t recognize the number on caller ID. It’s a problem for pollsters, too.

Grassroots politics used to rely on two things: knocking on doors and calling voters on the telephone. The public’s concerns about crime and privacy have made it useless to knock on doors. No one is going to answer. Door-to-door salesmen of the Willy Loman era gave up long ago. In the age of video doorbells, security cameras, security systems and nervous gun owners, it’s futile to knock on doors.

Making a telephone call to someone who is not a close friend or relative is also likely to fail. As the conversation at Saturday’s meeting made clear, most people don’t answer calls from people they don’t know, whether on landlines or cellphones. Security concerns and technology have trumped conversational attachments. A ringing telephone, once heard with joy and excitement, is now a despised disruption.

More than half of American homes are “cellular only” with no wired connection and, hence, no entry in the (rapidly becoming obsolete) phone book. Only 6.5% of homes were landline-only in 2017.

In less than 150 years, the wired telephone has gone from incredible ingenuity to ubiquitous appliance no home should be without to a relic of another era, as outdated as slide rules or carbon paper. When my parents got their first phone in the early 1950s, they placed it on a high shelf to keep five children from using the new device. Calls to my aunt barely 10 miles away involved “long distance,” which cost extra and required the intervention of an operator. On our first phone, picking up the receiver connected you to an operator who would ask, “Number, please?” and connect the call. Later, dial phones replaced our original party line phone.

The development of the smartphone in the 21st century changed the way people communicated. The cellphone has made several phrases obsolete:

• “Long distance.” A phone line gave access to local calls in the immediate area for a flat fee. Any calls beyond that were long distance and cost extra.

• “It’s for you!” used to be a common remark when someone answered the phone that was shared by the entire family. Now that almost everyone has a cellphone, calls are made to the individual, not the household.

• “Extension” is the end-user phone in a network or home, such as a kitchen extension, for which the phone company charged extra. Now everyone has his own, individual phone and distinct number.

What has killed the landline phone is not so much the smartphone as the development of phone banks and robocalls — computerized calls that are hard to avoid. “Do not call” lists didn’t work. New technology allows callers to present fake caller IDs. (I’ve received calls from myself, according to caller ID.) The only way to avoid unwanted calls is to not answer.

Telemarketers and technology have turned our phones into nuisances, and that will require new political and polling strategies.

Hal Tarleton is a former editor of The Wilson Daily Times. Contact him at haltarleton@myglnc.com.