In the wee hours of Aug. 30, phones across Wyoming began ringing.
State residents reported as many as five calls coming in from roughly midnight through 3:30 a.m., all automated and all seeking the recipients’ opinions of U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney’s (R-Wyoming) Republican primary challengers.
“I was pretty shook up,” Sen. Cale Case (R-Lander), who received two late-night calls from the number, said. “It was the same number, and I thought it might have been someone I’m the guardian of who was in the hospital. But when I listened to the messages, and they were both about the Republican primary, I was pissed as hell.”
Who was behind it?
The originator of the calls remains a mystery. Several sources interviewed by WyoFile could not recall the polling firm identifying itself, and recordings of calls provided to WyoFile — which featured a number of generic questions about the candidates and former President Donald Trump — were incomplete.
Representatives for Cheney’s campaign as well as Wyoming Sen. Anthony Bouchard (R-Cheyenne) — another candidate in the race — quickly distanced themselves from the calls. Rep. Chuck Gray (R-Casper) did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. A political action committee funded by his father has previously supported his campaign with unsolicited text messages and robocalls.
The Wyoming Republican Party released a statement condemning the calls, encouraging anyone who received one to report them to the Federal Communications Commission.
“Be assured these calls are not being generated on behalf of any Wyoming Republican state or county party,” the party wrote in a Facebook post. “This is a regrettable event, especially when our focus and concerns are on much more serious issues.”
Following the digits
Many complainants identified a Rock Springs phone number as the source of the calls.
Using a robocall database, WyoFile traced the line’s origins to San Francisco-based company Twilio, a cloud communications platform which allows users to conduct automated phone and text campaigns. The company — which declined to disclose its client — said in a statement it seeks to resolve any abuses of its platform internally, and encouraged anyone receiving an illegal robocall to report the incident to the FCC.
“When we are notified of a potential [Acceptable Use Policy] violation, we have a team in place to work with customers to get them back into compliance,” Cris Paden, Twilio’s director of corporate communications, wrote in a statement.
The company reserves the right to suspend or remove access to Twilio’s platform for customers or customers’ end users determined to be out of compliance with the AUP, he continued.
“We deeply respect customer confidentiality and are contractually prohibited from speculating or commenting on any specific customer without their permission,” Paden wrote.
The Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991 prohibits robocalls outside the hours of 8 a.m. and 9 p.m. local time.
Robocalls in politics are nothing new in Wyoming.
During the 2018 Republican primaries, an anonymous PAC called “Wyoming Friends of Coal” flooded voters with automated phone messages disparaging then-candidate Gov. Mark Gordon. In the 2006 and 2008 elections, numerous Democratic candidates — including presidential candidate Barack Obama and congressional candidate Gary Trauner — also found themselves the subject of automated robocalls. (Trauner, who lost his ’06 race against incumbent Barbara Cubin by less than half a percent, said he believed the robocalls could have cost him the race.)
A federal judge overturned Wyoming’s long-standing ban on robocalls in 2018. The calls have since grown in frequency. According to the monthly Robocall Index — a data set maintained by California-based robocall blocking app YouMail — an estimated 5 million robocalls were placed to Wyoming’s 307 area code in July 2018. By March 2021, they reached a peak of nearly 8.5 million robocalls.
With no law at the state level banning such calls, Wyomingites’ only recourse is through the federal government.
Twilio, which managed the calls, has already reached out to its client to dissuade them from further actions that could potentially have legal ramifications, Paden said.
Others believe the robocalls trend will continue until there is legislative action.
“Some people are willing to do whatever it takes to win, ethics and morals be damned,” Trauner said. “When norms are breached without consequences — and others see that it might give them an advantage — it becomes another step in the degradation of our political and policy system.”