Before shooting off an opinionated email to Congress, Net users should consider who will be reading their democratic prose--or whether it will be read at all.
About four years ago, Congress members started slapping their email addresses on stationery and business cards, but they didn't seem to understand the magnitude of time and planning it would take to read, catalog, and respond to the growing influx of digital messages, according to a new study.
If read, emails to federal lawmakers are often printed out and retyped into so-called constituent management systems. But many Congress members haven't even updated their databases to incorporate email, although that is changing rapidly.
In any case, constituent email keeps flowing in because senders think it has an advantage over handwritten letters or telephone calls--mainly because citizens can send one message to many members. However, like preprinted special interest postcards, these emails often aren't read and are "dragged and dropped" into the trash, according to a recent study by American University and Washington law firm Bonner & Associates.
Lawmakers confirm that they don't "count" every email because it's difficult to determine where the flood of electronic messages are coming from.
"We found that there has been an explosive increase in constituents emailing members of Congress and in the number of members who receive email. Overall, the vast majority of email going to members of Congress is outside of their districts, and for the most part, ignored," said Jack Bonner, president of the firm, which has a division called Netroots that creates grassroots Web sites.
According to the survey of 270 congressional offices, about 90 percent of all House and Senate members are using email. But more than 80 percent of all replies are done through the regular mail, the study stated.
So while email campaigns may be growing, there is good reason to question their effectiveness. This is no surprise to people who have been trying to pull Capitol Hill into the digital age for years.
"When a member gets a handwritten letter, they can look at the zip code to see if the person is in their district. But they can't do that if 'email@example.com' sends an email, unless it includes a postal address," said Chris Casey, author of The Hill on the Net, and who now works for the Senate Democratic Leadership's Technology and Communications Committee.
"Many people who email Congress mistakenly assume that if they copy the message to every member of Congress they will have a louder voice. I think it's a pretty safe assumption that a letter addressed to everybody is as good as a letter addressed to nobody," he added.
Still, Casey is quick to add that this scenario is changing, and that most congressional offices are eager to use the Net to streamline duties and disseminate information. For example, almost all members have Web pages, which have experienced surges in traffic over the past year, according to the American University study.
Early adopters in Congress are using Web-based forms to accept letters, requesting a zip code to narrow down whether the writer is from their district. These same systems, such as CitizenDirect, also are used to record communication and generate responses.
"About 150 House offices now use the [CitizenDirect] program," said Howard Langston, director of marketing for Citizen Direct. "Constituents register and set up a mailbox on a member's site to communicate with them. When the member responds, the constituents' mailbox will show that they have a letter waiting."
Sen. Partick Leahy (D-Vermont) doesn't use the CitizenDirect system, but he has been emailing back constituents for years.
Leahy gets about 2,500 emails per week, though only about 40 to 50 messages are from Vermont residents, his office said today. Most out-of-state email to his office goes unanswered and often isn't tallied for consensus unless the Senator is the point person on that issue.
"If the messages are from out of state, the aides will keep track of those ideas where the senator is a leader, but there is just not the ability to respond to messages outside of Vermont in the same way," Leahy spokesman David Carle said today. "Sen. Leahy not only understands the Net but is enthusiastic about it. The same rule applies to spam as postcard campaigns; senators and staff can only respond in kind."
Other senators don't get as much out-of-state email but still respond through paper letters. "There is a staffer who reads all the email and summarizes it for a report to the senator," said Cathy McKiernan, a spokeswoman for Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts). "We're not capable of responding via email."
Congress members are no doubt aware of the need to read and respond to voter email. The technical issues, however, will be worked out office by office, Casey said.
"They're like 535 little companies. Most representatives recognize their unglamorous use of technology," he added. "I think whether it's email or Web-based electronic communication, this type of communication [with Congress] will only grow."