Government

EFF Launches Write-to-Congress Tool

Email has made communicating with elected officials easy, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation this week launched a new tool that is going to make it easier yet.

The tool, which resides at Democracy.io, allows you to send an electronic missive to your U.S. representative and senators with a minimum of clicks. Typically, you’d have to go to your legislators’ websites separately to make your views known.

When you land at Democracy.io, a form appears for you to enter your home address. The EFF’s tool will use that information to look up the names of your three congresspersons. You then can choose any or all of those lawmakers, and send them whatever message you’d like.

The site follows best practices for protecting the privacy of its users, according to the EFF.

What’s more, all the code used in the project is licensed under the GNU Affero General Public License, which means people can create new versions of the project with different features.

EFF does not control or influence the messages sent through Democracy.io, it said.

Misleading Assumption?

“Being able to contact your elected representatives is a critical component of a healthy democracy,” said EFF Tech Fellow Sina Khanifar. “Making sure that it’s a simple and rewarding process should be one of Congress’s priorities, but unfortunately it doesn’t seem to even be on their radar.”

That criticism rang harshly in some ears.

“They say they built the site because it’s hard to interact with your member of Congress,” said Brad Fitch, president of the Congressional Management Foundation. “That’s misleading.”

“Members of Congress make themselves available through a variety of different means, and the Web forms at their websites are pretty easy to use,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“One of the advantages of Democracy.io is that you can send your message to two senators and a rep all at once,” Fitch added. “That’s very convenient, but the underlying principle that it’s hard to contact your member of Congress is simply not true. It’s very easy to contact your member of Congress.”

Filling Advocacy Gap

Services such as those offered by Democracy.io have been available to advocacy organizations for some time, the EFF’s Khanifar explained, but they’re beyond the means of many citizens.

“We want to fill a gap that exists in online advocacy so that everyday people can speak out without having to have an affiliation with a specific organization,” said Rainey Reitman, activism director for the Electronic Frontier foundation.

That kind of correspondence can have an impact on a legislator, especially one without a firm position on an issue.

Eighty-eight percent of congressional staffers polled said an email from a constituent would influence an undecided member of Congress, a 2010 CMF survey found.

“Individualized emails, which is what this tool does, are considered some of the most influential tools that citizens can use to interact with members of Congress,” the CMF’s Fitch said.

However, that’s just one ingredient of many necessary to get things done on Capitol Hill.

“Email alone isn’t going to move policy,” said Michael Kelly, communications director for Clean Water Action.

“We’ll try to get people to phone Congress and to write handwritten letters,” he said.

“Email is effective in the sense that it lets people know this issue is important, but then we follow up with something more high touch,” Kelly told the E-Commerce Times.

Closing Constituent Gap

With so much attention paid during political campaigns on money, it’s easy for citizens to ignore the power of email. That would be a mistake, EFF’s Reitman told the E-Commerce Times.

“I’m certain that contact from constituents can have a huge influence in Congress,” she said.

“We’ve seen bills get killed or stopped or changed just because people spoke out about them. What makes me nervous is when people feel jaded, and they stop speaking out about something, and Congress doesn’t realize something is unpopular with their own constituents,” Reitman remarked.

“That’s when you get a gap between what constituents want their members of Congress to do and what those members actually end up doing,” she added. “We’re trying to make that less likely to happen with this tool.”

On the other hand, adding to the flood of email most Congressional offices already have to deal with could dilute the effectiveness of the messages.

“It could be giving a more advanced tool to people to be ignored,” New York Times reporter Mark Leibovich told the E-Commerce Times. “I’m guessing that’s how it will play out in most cases.”

John Mello is a freelance technology writer and contributor to Chief Security Officer magazine. You can connect with him on Google+.

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