Think about the water heater in your house for a second. Can you picture it? When was the last time you thought about it? I'm guessing never. Am I correct?
And that's fine, because your water heater is probably working great. But, every now and then, it's important to think about your water heater. Why? Maybe something could go catastrophically wrong, causing your whole plumbing system to explode, and you might find yourself with bits of shrapnel embedded in your skull while your basement is covered in an explosion of shit.
That was a metaphor about elections. Sometimes, really crappy things happen during them. In fact, by the end of this article, you might prefer an actual shit basement.
Robocalls are pretty much what they sound like: calls from robotic phone banks that irritatingly play prerecorded messages. Or, in some cases, they are just calls generated by an autodialer to connect human people to other human people much more rapidly than we could do with our puny human fingers and pathetic human dialing pads.
I chatted with Adam Ruff -- a former presidential campaign staffer, long-time political operative, and former congressional campaign manager -- about the way robocalls were deployed.
Please say it's this ...
"Voter ineligibility is a great one," he told me. "It really fucks with people. Nobody knows whether or not they can vote."
I should emphasize that Adam was using 'great' ironically -- like a 'great extinction' or the way Charlie Chaplin made a movie called The Great Dictator.
It works this way: "You call and say, 'This is the bureau of voter fraud regulation. Due to your failure to show up in the primaries, you are ineligible to vote in the general election. While we apologize for the inconvenience, lines are expected to be four to eight hours long, so we didn't want you to get here and then be turned away.'"
Every word of this call is, of course, nonsense. But, if you target a specific group of people -- very often minority people -- you can, perhaps, keep them from coming out to the polls. Especially if you promise "long lines with failure waiting at the end of them" -- the world's worst theme park marketing campaign. Besides, you know, "come here and die publicly." But, second worst. Definitely second worst.
Adam is sort of a robocall buff, and he spent a gleeful half-hour explaining all the subgenres of the form. There are the calls to jam up an opponent's office on Election Day; there are the calls that tell you you'll need a passport -- a document highly correlated to wealth -- in order to vote; and there are the 2 a.m. calls purporting to be from an opponent's campaign designed specifically to piss people off.
"I'm still not voting for Trump. Good night."
Robocalls are also almost impossible to track and, for a consulting fee, many robocalling firms will show you how to set up the call and do it yourself, eliminating any liability or record that the firm might have.
The good news is that robocalls are falling out of favor. Another political consultant I spoke with told me that electioneering robocalls have dropped way off because "you can go on the Internet and report them, and the backlash can be huge." Way to go, Internet: For once, our mob mentality is doing some good.
#3. Walking-Around Money
Look, you and I both know that you would love to volunteer on Election Day. You want to help people fulfill their civic duty and get them out to the polls. But, as a great statesman once said ...
That, more or less, is the governing principle in most big-city elections. The idea that you buy off precinct captains in order to get people to the polls is so commonplace that it barely elicited a shrug from any of the campaign consultants I spoke to.
One former politico told me, "Particularly in Philadelphia ... Election Day is known as payday. Your bundlers, the big fund-raisers you have, write checks to 'cash.' Then, they leave these big, thick envelopes of cash at the campaign office and then the precinct captains have the block captains, and the block captains have the building captains, and they get a payday. And there's an incentive to make more money. Each new person who turns out, I get more. It's on a sliding scale: The votes that are above and beyond where the votes lay in previous years are worth more ... The system is really complex. It's a very MIT/Las Vegas odds system of [getting out the vote]."
That's right: sabermetrics. We're in the era of municipal-election-graft Moneyball. But, that's Philadelphia.
If you want real corruption, you go to Chicago because ... well, obviously. There just isn't anywhere in America more delightfully synonymous with political corruption. Despite a population of less than half of New York's, Chicago has had more convicted politicians than any other city since 1976.
At least Chicago's beating New York at something these days!
So, it almost seems natural that a 19-year-old volunteer -- let's call her "Amy" -- with $15,000 in a duffle bag would get held up at gunpoint by a member of her own campaign. This was a person she actually knew by first and last name as well as a person who apologized as he was stealing from her. Amy called her campaign headquarters. They were nonplussed. They told her to get out of the building since other precinct captains might murder her if she didn't have their money. It's a Chicago election, Amy. Obviously, murder is on the table.
Then, in a shocking coincidence, the man who stole from her broke both of his legs. Far be it from me to imply it wasn't a coincidence or that Chicago is a deeply corrupt city where people just break other people like toothpicks with fragile legs. I would never imply that.