Civic Engagement Research
There are a great many ways to petition the government: phone calls, emails, writing letters, filling out website comment forms and personal visits. Emails and comment forms are processed by a computer algorithm which automatically sends a variety of form responses, so emails are a waste of time. How about social media? Congressional staffers have said they only check Facebook to remove vulgar posts and block spammers and trolls. The one reputed to be the most effective is calling your congressional representatives. But does it work and does it really make a difference? Does any of these methods really make a difference? These research topics will answer those questions, and many more.
First, constituents deserve the ability to make their voices heard - it's a fundamental part of American democracy. So in 1898 the U.S Government installed the first telephone switchboard at the Capitol, and citizens across the nation could call their members of Congress. But as the number of citizens with telephones increased, so did the number of calls to the switchboard. Almost 120 years later, the number of calls coming into the switchboard on a daily basis is double it's maximum capacity, which has crashed it on several occasions. While citizens complain about not being able to reach their members of Congress, congressional staffers complain about not getting any work done because of the phone constantly ringing.
When we do call, we almost never speak to our representatives directly. Instead, we usually wind up dealing with an intern or low-level staffer. Compounding the problem are activist groups that spam their offices with hundreds of pre-scripted robocalls and blast faxes from all over the nation. For instance, many Senators represents tens of millions of constituents, with only 4 - 7 phone lines. This means that most callers are sent straight to voice mail, which fills up after about 100 messages. Any calls after that gets a busy signal or a message that their voice mailbox is full and to call back.
So now for the big question . . . do phone calls influence lawmaker decisions? A journalist in an article in the New Yorker writes “When I asked past and present Congress members and high-level staffers if constituent phone calls mattered, all of them emphasized that it absolutely does. But when I asked them to name a time that a legislator had changed his or her vote on the basis of phone calls, I got, in every instance, a laugh, and then a very long pause. It’s easy to chalk that reaction up to embarrassment, as if Congress members had been caught paying lip service to constituents.”
Two things are for certain. The increase in civic participation has exposed a major flaw: the phone system in Washington is unable to keep up with a growing electorate that no longer trusts their representatives to make decisions on their behalf and is frustrated with gridlock and partisan bickering. And utilizing smarter, simpler technology would let citizens have their voices heard, with less work and frustration on all sides.
Does Posting on Facebook Influence Decisions Made by Congress?
So now for the big question . . . is all that posting on social media making a difference with policy decisions made by our lawmakers? Are there verifiable instances of lawmakers actually changing a policy decision as a direct result of Facebook posts? Understand that the foundation for members of Congress to represent you is whether or not you are their geographic constituent . . . do you live in their district?
However, the growing use of social media is changing the nature and challenges of representation in at least two ways. First, social media users can be anonymous, have multiple accounts, and some are fake users. Users can fill out their profile information with as little information as they choose and can “turn off” geo-location services. So it's not always possible to know where a specific user is located. This presents a unique challenge for Congress as they want to interact mostly or exclusively with their geographic constituents.
Secondly, users could be underage, unregistered or disqualified voters, they may not be U.S. Citizens, and they could actually be living in other countries. In addition, there are two problems with the data. There is no way to automatically sort, analyze, and then count Facebook posts as to whether or not the user is for or against a specific policy. So that information has no real analytical value. And unfortunately we were not able to find a single documented instance of social media posts resulting in a lawmaker influencing his or her policy decision.
Does Signing a Petition Really Influence Congress?
Petitions typically have no credibility with Congress and this is why. I signed a Change.org political petition as Elvis Presley and used my son's email address. So there’s no way for Change.org to know if I am a registered voter, if I am a U.S. Citizen, which Congressional District I am in, and if I am of legal age to sign anything, and all of that information that is critical when dealing with Congress on major public policies. Also, if I wanted to harvest email addresses Change.org would be a good way to do that.
Why You Should Think Twice Before Signing a Change.org Petition
Change.org, the online petition platform, is everyone's favorite form of online activism. As with most things these days, do-gooders and protesters alike take to the internet to start movements, and Change.org has quickly become the go-to tool for the lazy in the digital age. Dubbed the "Google of modern politics", it's amassed 150 million users around the world, and increases by another million every month. With just a few clicks anyone can sign, or even start, a petition. While it's true that it sometimes open doors to fight social injustice, it's also profiting off its users big time.
How much is your email address worth?
According to Italian magazine L'Espresso, Change.org is all but non-profit and sells user's information to the highest bidder. In an investigation published in 2016 the publication released Change.org's client price list ranging from $1.72 per email if a client buys less than 10,000, up to $.97 cents per email if the number goes above 500,000," for emails used to sign sponsored petitions.
No such thing as online privacy in Change .org
Filling Out a Website Comment Form
Emily Ellsworth, a former staffer for Utah Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart, has noted that certain methods of communication are better than others when it comes to getting lawmakers' attention. Ellsworth cautions against relying on email, website comment forms or snail mail to make your voice heard. According to Ellsworth, emails and letters arrive by the thousands in congressional offices and they are often sorted and responded to with topic-centered form letters. Website comment forms are scanned for key words and a standard response is sent. In fact to prove that point, a few years ago I filled out Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s comment form and complained about Micky Mouse insulting my wife, and I demanded a public apology from Micky, Minnie, Goofy and Donald Duck. I also demanded that Mr. Walt Disney be there personally. I added certain “key words” that I knew their computer algorithm would find. It worked and I received a canned response about Nelson’s efforts to grow tourism in central Florida.
How About Protests, Sign Wavings and Marching?
Protests erupted in the Texas capitol building on Monday May 29th 2017 over Governor Greg Abbott’s new law cracking down on ‘sanctuary cities,’ interrupting the final day in the regular session of the Texas Legislature. Hundreds of protesters chanted in opposition to the new law, forcing House leadership to stop the session and send state troopers to clear the gallery. But does protesting work and does it really make a difference? Questions about the success of protests have been around for an extremely long time. So, for the sake of this article, let's define success as whether or not the protest influenced decisions of key policy-makers.
For some protesters, carrying signs and singing catchy songs or phrases makes them feel good. They just like the excitement of political gatherings and want to show the public they all share common feelings. Unfortunately, other protesters tend to be more aggressive, disruptive, and sometimes resort to violence. While disruptive protests might get more news coverage, policy-makers tend to totally disregard them and ignore their causes. Research has also shown that a high percentage of protesters are not registered voters and therefore have no power over the lawmakers come election time. You see, policies that affect the lives of Americans have to go through the 535 members of Congress, and it's these politicians that must be effectively and forcefully instructed to act in the public’s best interest.
That's why the most successful “citizen lobbying groups" such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) or the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) or NFIB or the AMA don't bother with marches, protests and demonstrations. Instead, they focus their policy influencing efforts on each individual member of Congress.
Schedule a Personal Meeting With Your Lawmakers
To actually “see” your member of Congress, it is best to attend one of their Town Hall Meetings and mingle with a large group that can’t be ignored. It is still highly unlikely you will get “face time.” You can also personally meet with your elected representatives in their District Offices. You should treat this appointment like any important business meeting and be totally prepared with the facts.
Identify beforehand which member of the legislative body you want to talk with. Be clear as to what you want to accomplish, know what you are going to say, and who you wish to say it to. Type out your arguments or concerns, and give it to them for further reference. For example, if you want to meet with Senator Marco Rubio, contact one of his 8 District Offices that are closest to you. Understand that the higher up your official is on the political ladder, the more “gate-keepers” he or she will have. Each member of Congress has an Appointment Secretary for you to contact to arrange a meeting. Tell them the specific dates and times you are available, which District Office, and explain your purpose and exactly why you want a meeting.
Members of Congress usually have limited time in their District Offices so he or she may not be in that particular office on your requested dates and times. You may want to also request a meeting in Washington, D.C. All travel expenses are your responsibility, and the unwritten rule is that meetings are no longer than 10 - 15 minutes. It is common for members of Congress to run behind schedule, cancel meetings, or to have meetings interrupted. If that happens, you may be asked to meet with a staff member instead, or reschedule your appointment.