October 3rd, 2006

Constituent emails not reaching legislators

The Washington Post has a deeply disturbing article in Monday’s paper about the shockingly high number of constituent communications submitted electronically that never reach their intended representatives and senators. Legislators have put barriers in place to stop emails from reaching them or once they arrive, they aren’t given the respect due to correspondence sent from constituents to their representatives. Quite simply, this is an unacceptable response to the uses of technology. Electronic communication should allow for more communication between legislators and their constituents - and, on one side, it has. But the same technology that allows constituents to send more communications for less money now seems to stand in the way of response: emails are considered spam and programs that facilitate communications between the constituent and their rep are stymied with devices that try to block advocacy.

Congress has had an e-mail problem for years. It is deluged with an estimated 200 million constituent messages annually, the vast majority of them electronic. The number is so large and is growing so quickly that lawmakers are desperate to find ways to throttle the volume.

The number of e-mails has mushroomed in part because of the now-common practice among interest groups to rally their troops via cyberspace. Generally, a lobby will send an e-mail to its most eager members, which directs them to a Web site. Once there, the members fill out a form that routes to lawmakers e-mails that advocate whatever it is the group is pressing for at the moment.

Electronic advocacy lowers the barrier for participation. Form letters from issue groups may have the air of spam because of their volume, but only the most cynical of people would think that individuals choosing to send messages asking for support on their issue of choice would be suitable for trashing.

According to the Capitol Advantage study, six of the 10 leading companies that run Web sites that send e-mails for interest groups failed to deliver even half of those e-mails through their systems.

I actually was alerted to this article by two email advocacy providers connected to my job (one we use, one wooing us to switch - both referenced in the article). This is a big deal for them, as Congress has taken steps to reduce the effectiveness of online advocacy programs. Many of these programs have alternative means of sending messages to legislators - my particular favorite is fax actions - but the basic problem is that emails are themselves treated as problematic. I don’t see any way to look at that reality and cry foul.

Lawmakers tend to think that e-mail communications and, in fact, almost all mass mailings are fake and can easily be disregarded, several executives said.

Legislators seem to be saying that they don’t want to be subjected to the opinions of constituents who agree on important issues. That is, perhaps they don’t want to hear from 10,000 people who support election reform as opposed to six people who were offended by the latest episode of The Family Guy. But to disregard volume emails because they convey a similar message is antithetical to the principles of representative democracy. Legislators don’t have to hold opinions based on who claps (or boos) the loudest, but they do have a responsibility to hear the concerns of their citizens. Classifying constituent emails as spam and funneling them down the tubes is a failure of congressional duties to hear the petitions of their citizenry.

The netroots effectiveness as a lobbying constituency will be greatly impacted by the ability of electronic communications to reach their targets. Granted, phone calls will always carry more persuasive weight than emails, but that doesn’t mean that volumes of correspondence on an issue can’t convince a legislator to vote with his constituents. Instead of building walls around the halls of Congress, legislators should be finding ways to budget for more staff to read and respond to constituent emails. Emails are not a shortcut. They should not be ignored; emailers are making a choice to participate in government and impact the stewardship of our country. That should not be casually dismissed - it should be celebrated.

If bloggers and citizens of the netroots are troubled by the Hill’s take on constituent emails, the answer as I see it is more emails. The next time you send an email to Congress, through an advocacy group or on your own, include an enjoiner for someone on the congressional staff to actually read what’s written and provide you with a response. Congress should not be allowed to flippantly ignore one of the easiest and most common means of communication just because it increases their work load. After all, they’re working for us - they should at least listen to our instructions.

Cross posted at Emboldened.

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Posted in Politics

3 Comment(s)

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  1. Jet Netwal Says :

    I gauge the effectiveness of email contact by the number of responses I get. It’s probably about 15%. I’m more likely to hear back from my Democratic Senator than my Republican Senator and Rep. I’ve never not received a response from a fax, either.

    As a rule, I don’t petition representation that’s not from my state, although I have when they’re leading on an issue I care about. I have a greater response percentage, near 40% or so, from those emails, which is odd.

    It seems to me that it would be far easier to see up some staff to reply to emails; they are easier, faster and cheaper on the taxpayer. If I’m going to get a form letter response either way, why do I have to pay for letterhead and postage to boot?

  2. ken grandlund Says :

    I agree that this is just another attempt by lawmakers to insulate themselves from their constituents, but I also can understand the gravity of trying to respond to tens of thousands of e-mails. I usually get a form letter from my senators, at least letting me know my missive is ‘in the count’ so to speak, but my representative never even sends a form response. BTW- both senators are Dems and my rep is a Rep. Go figure. I guess we know who in my neck of the woods considers constituents at least important enough to send a canned response to.


  3. Juanita McKenzie Says :

    Thank you for the article from The Washington Post concerning e-mails not reaching their intended targets (Senators & Reps). I receive The Wash. Post everyday to my inbox but must of missed this story. I’m a member of MoveOn, Common Cause etc … petition e-mails are a big part in all campaigns. I always receive auto responses from my Dem. Senators and about 80% from my idiot Republican Congressman. I’ll keep a better eye out from now on. Better yet I’ll cut & paste notices from my groups and just go to their (Sen. & Rep.) websites and send from there ! Thanks for the info.

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