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Mandate Media: Digital Strategy for People Changing the World
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The end of electronic contact with Congress?

A few years ago, most members of Congress stopped accepting emails from the public. After all, every passionate advocate would decide that if the message was worth writing, it was worth sending to all 535 members.

But members of Congress only want to hear from their own constituents. (With postal mail, it's common practice to forward most mail to the appropriate member, rather than respond to out-of-district mail.)

So, they've got web forms that require you to provide your first name, your last name, your email address, and most importantly, your zip code. Some even require you to identify your general topic area from a menu in order to properly categorize the contact.

Of course, activist groups want to motivate their supporters to contact legislators - but still track the participation levels of their members. So, many have developed systems (or outsourced to services like CapWiz) that allow them to host a contact form on their own site, track the participation, and then hand off the data to the congressional website.

Now, from BuzzWebster comes news that even those web forms may be ending - due to overuse and abuse from the activist groups.

But recently, activists have begun receiving messages from several Senators’ offices (at least five that we know of) informing them that their comments will be ignored because they came through a third party web site. It’s not that they can’t receive the messages, it’s just that they refuse to acknowledge them once they’ve received them, citing unprompted letters and unsolicited spam as their rationale.

While BuzzWebster writer Eve Fox poses a number of questions for advocates, I think it's worth asking this question: Given that it's their job to hear from the public, what can members of Congress do to ensure that they receive messages from their constituents - but reject non-constituent mail, identical messages from hundreds of people, and automated message-bots?

The answer, as it often is, is to develop better systems. Just a few off-the-cuff ideas:

Insist on a zip code from a constituent. No zip code - junk the message. Zip code outside the district - junk the message. (You'd think they're already doing this, but apparently not always.)

Build a system that requires a confirmation click-thru. Too many folks put bogus email addresses in web forms - especially when they're trying to generate lots of contact. Every email should get an automated response asking for a click-to-confirm. No click - junk the message.

Build a system that junks duplicate messages. There's no reason that members of Congress should accept dozens of identical messages generated by "astroturf" organizations (fake grassroots, y'know?). Once the incoming mail system detects a duplicate, it should send an automated message that declares, "Sorry, your message is identical to another message we received. If you have something to say to your member of Congress, please write it in your own words." Better yet, build the system so that it'll trap messages that are more than 90% identical.

I'm sure there's more ideas. The key is this: Empower true grassroots organizing efforts, but cut short the astroturf junk.