Delivering the H.R. 45 “Group Letter”

In March and April we ran an experiment to see if citizens could come together to write a “group letter” to Congress. Yesterday I took a trip down to Capitol Hill to deliver the letter to Members of Congress.

Our first experiment with group writing resulted in opposing collaboratively written by 450 people and then later signed by over 3,000 people. We took on this experiment because Congress can’t keep up with the volume of letters it receives. We wanted to try a novel way of aggregating voices, without using a simple petition. I wrote about this more and . The process used the writing tool , where participants have three tasks: writing letters from scratch, remixing the content from letters written by other users, and rating the letters and remixes to pick the best one. I chose to start the experiment on a single issue, and a single side of the issue, because I knew that there was a critical mass of visitors to GovTrack that would want to contribute to such a letter. By no means does GovTrack endorse the content of the letter.

As part of the experiment, I promised the participants that I would deliver the top-rated letter to Members of Congress in person. (Mind you, I live in Philadelphia.) I met up with David Stern, the co-founder of MixedInk, in front of the Cannon House Office Building, one of the buildings where congressmen have their offices:

David Stern in front of Cannon House Office Building

MixedInk’s David Stern in front of Cannon House Office Building

I picked out nine congressmen to bring the letter to: the bill’s sponsor Bobby Rush, the chair and ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee where the bill was referred to (that’s John Conyers and Lamar Smith), the chair and ranking member of the Crime subcommittee where the bill was referred to (that’s Bobby Scott and Louie Gohmert), and then the congressmen from the four districts that gathered the most number of signatures in the petition phase of the project (Todd Tiahrt and Peter DeFazio with 36 signatures, and John Boozman and Greg Walden with 32 signatures). Their offices are spread over three buildings, so we had a lot of walking to do. And we made some bad turns in the buildings a few times too. It took a while.

In delivering the letter we had two goals in mind.

First, we delivered a letter you wrote. We told the offices we were acting on behalf of some of their constituents. They were receptive and happy to respond to the names and addresses of the signatories in their district.

Second, we wanted to see what the staff in each of the offices thought of a group letter. Was this useful to them as a way to aggregate voices that was more thoughtful than a petition? In each office we asked to speak with an “LC”, a legislative correspondent whose job is to manage constituent communications in the office, or an “LA”, a legislative assistant who works on policy matters. We ended up speaking to two LCs, one LA, and some low-level staff. Their reactions were pretty much the same. Most thought the idea of group writing was interesting, but because we delivered it as esentially a petition that is how they saw it. We didn’t collect the names and addresses of the 451 people that actually contributed writing the letter, unfortunately — and with only 451 people spread across the whole country, that doesn’t make for a very strong petition in any given district.

If 3,000 people contributed to writing the letter itself, things might have been different.

So the moral here is that a group letter on this scale is probably not going to be seen any differently from a petition by congressional offices. It’s a good way to get a group to come to a consensus on a letter, but it’s not necessarily a more effective or efficient way to contact Congress.

[Update: Comments below on the merits of gun control will not be accepted. This isn’t the place to argue that point.]

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34 Comments

  1. I can definitely see where the single conglomeration of signatures on one or two sheets for a single item would come across as a petition. That,as opposed to 3,000 names and addresses on individual letters which would not only represent each persons viewpoint BUT also it would allow the politicians the ability to see where these people live and vote. Every politicians job is currently on the line due to the drastic turn in political affairs taking place since we gained a Democrat dominance in all three houses.

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  2. I feel that the 3000+ people that singed the petition would have more impact if there were 3000+ individual letters/e-mails sent to their individual Senators and Congressman. A link to the individuals Senators and Congressmen would have a HUGE impact.

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  3. We must find an easy way for the masses to have their voices heard. At this time one may call their congressman but there is no real followup or in most all cases no return calls. Everyone I talk to feels like they have no voice so they don’t do anything. It is IMPERATIVE that we let our representatives hear our voice in this way for our future. Maybe a national independant system that graphs how they vote versus how the people vote?

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  4. This is a good concept. We may add this into our action center but use it more for building a political theme rather than to address a particular issue. For Mr. Whiteside: in our “Civics” section, we do link to a national independent system that graphs how your representatives vote. We’re looking forward to seeing what our users think.

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  5. Hey, I was just wondering when the vote will be scheduled on bill HR 45? Also, does anyone know the best and most effective way to contact our senators and congressmen?

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  6. I want to know why ALL the signatures were not delivered.
    I think I was mislead and the people that I urged to sign were mislead.
    Bait and switch?
    And what happened to the list?

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  7. I’m sorry if it was misleading. It would have been impractical to stop by the offices of all of the congressmen who got a signature in their district — that would have taken forever. The explanations were intended to make that clear, but I might have made a mistake.

    It’s also the first time I tried anything like this, so I hope you understand.

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  8. I thought that we could ask for volunteers in their respective state capitals to deliver them.
    Or volunteers in DC.
    Your idea is a great tool to get a common message to the politicians.
    We should insist that a citizen read it to them face to face.
    Maybe someone out there in cyberspace will start a letter to abolish the fed bank on mixedink, hint, hint.

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  9. Josh, I am glad to see someone is trying to do something to get the word of the “people” out to our representatives. I feel very strongly about this bill, and any bill that further restricts the rights of the American people. I would like to know why this bill has not made headlines in the news. If more people were made aware of what congress is voting on, I think more people would get involved.

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  10. I suggest that the easiest way to contact your Representative is via their Website. I simply copied and pasted the letter and sent it directly to them. I even sent it to my Senators and asked that if this legislation or anything similar comes before the Senate, that they vote NO. Contacting your elected reps is easy using the web.

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  11. I contact my representatives on a regular basis and both California Senators answer in a generic message that does not have anything to do with my question or comment. My congressman, Royce always responds to my communication and I feel like I can depend on his principles to get things done for American citizens.

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  12. I have heard that 100 phone calls=50 emails=10 letters=1 fax to a senator’s or representative’s office. I also heard that letters don’t even go to Congressional members because of the anthrax scare. They are opened somewhere in Maryland and then (supposedly) forwarded.
    I would get fax numbers off the web and try that. Make some part of your fax ask a question that requires a response. No response=either didn’t read it or just not interested in listening to you.
    Keep up the fight.

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  13. Just some thoughts. No 1 – it seems that there are alot of excuses as to what these offices will accept or concider as valid. You learned more on what they are looking for, now put it all together so it can be done the way they want it and publish how they want it done.
    No 2 – maybe there should be an organization who can gather the info, put it together the way it should be and personally deliver it, and figure out a way so that these petitions in the correct form, have to be at least presented and accounted for at their meetings. They don’t seem to have any trouble putting blank pages in a bill and passing it, or just generally not even reading the bill they are passing!

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  14. leesa,

    What we really learned is that we didn’t find anything new. Petitions are fine (include everyone’s names and addresses). So are personal letters (just don’t think a decision-maker will read it). There doesn’t seem to be a reason to personally deliver letters — mailing in things by email seems to be as good, as far as I can tell from our experiment.

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  15. I think this is such a wonderful thing. I wish I had found it earlier so that I could have signed. Personally, I think that accountability is going to be the only tool we as citizens have left. When the morons in washington act the way they do we vote them out. But then you have to look at the last election…God, I pray there is hope for our country. ITS NOT LOOKING TO GOOD RIGHT NOW!

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  16. Having visited my representative’s and Senators offices in DC, I can vouch for the volume of correspondence (electronic and paper) that they recieve. I also learned that it takes about six weeks for written letters to clear security screening at the capitol since 9/11, something that I was unaware of.

    Having said that, the ability/willingness of a member of Congress to respons appears to vary although I’m not sure there is a link between response and ‘listening’ to consituents. I’ve found since I first started corresponding over 20 years ago that most do, although there will be some delay. Those that don’t seem to be in the minority, one that my current representative falls into.

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  17. I say we citizens should flood them with faxes as suggested by J.K.Hight, with a reply requested to insure that it was read by someone (?). All I can say is we have to do something – being complacent surely won’t get anything done. I’m ready to do my part – Are You???

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  18. Gerard, there’s no reason to be hostile about communicating with your rep. They can throw away faxes as fast as you sent them. A “legislative correspondent” staff member will scan the fax, check if there are names and addresses of constituents and count them up and note them for any replies or future mailings, and then toss the fax away.

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  19. Thanks for the info! Now that we know that petitions are basically useless, and faxes are possibly the only correspondence that actually makes it to the legislator in a timely fashion, we can certainly improve our chances of making a difference!

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  20. The letter needs to be linked to a Congressional Contact Database, so everyone can instantly send the complete letter (with all co-signers) an email to BOTH their Senator & Congressman & Whitehouse. Having One’s Senator & Congressman’s fax number, One could quickly “Print” the letter to their Windows “Fax” making an even more effective presentation.

    GunOwners.org has this type of system making it easy to send a direct letter to your Representatives.

    http://capwiz.com/gunowners/home/

    Lastly, ALL OF CONGRESS must receive a copy. Most of the Congressmen above are RABID ANTI-GUN ZEALOTS who simply ignore, delete or shred any opposing voices. Every Member of Congress needs to be put on notice regarding these matters. I’ve spent a lot of time on Capitol Hill and it’s a very ugly, nasty and cut-throat place.

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  21. It is unfortunate that such a well written letter as this was regarded as a mere petition. I have made a copy of the letter and I will be referencing its well articulated points any chance I get to argue further gun control legislation. Thank you to all who wrote this. I wish I could have been a part. You certainly represented my thoughts perfectly. Thank you govtrack and mixedink for encouraging this and following it to completion.

    Chris
    USMC
    Arizona

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  22. While sending letters and faxes are a good means of communicating, There is still nothing like face to face encounters. I went to a town meeting and I felt that our representative Jo Bonner was truly impressed with the questions asked and he answered the best he could. We need more public recognition and it would help if the news media would recognize us. Gloria Webb

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  23. I have been contacting my Senators and Congressmen for about a year about this bill. They agreed to uphold our secand amendment rights but only two of the three actually told me they would NOT support the bill. How do I track this outrageous bill? I find it completely appalling that an American would attempt to do this to other Americans. JW

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  24. I agree with Mr. Coplan, is there a way to copy and mail to our representataives in our own districts? I just found out about this bill and I am appalled that they think they can sneak this in in the dark….TB

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  25. When I write a letter to a congress person, I may get a response if he voted as I suggested. Often, I do not hear anything. A message with 3,000 signatures may get their attention. I know my email or letter has no effect.

    Criminals don’t follow the laws. When law abiding citizens are unarmed criminals prosper.

    The second amendment is what stops us from having a police state.

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  26. You guys have developed the greatest tool I have ever found for “We the people…..”

    Keep up the outstanding work..!!!

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  27. This is very interesting.
    It’s clear our Congress is not listening to us on many subjects. As main stream America has been conisitently voicing concerns over big government, the main stream media has been undermining and insulting these efforts.
    I would like to sugest this same effort be tried again on HR45 but with 3000 signatures and addresses.
    Congress has not listened on health care, maybe they will listen on this one — maybe ….

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  28. Whether one sends a U.S.P.S. letter, an email, FAX, or signs a petition, it is a waste of time if it does not contain the name (as it appears on voter registration), address of record including zip code, and of course, city and state. If they cannot verify the communication comes from a constituent, it will not even be glanced at. Don’t be afraid to use your real name. Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, John Hancock, et al
    did not use screen names.

    I regularly email my senators & congressman. Sometimes just to say “You are doing a good job.” or “Thanks for your vote on that issue.” Then hopefully, when I express my concern about something like H.R. 45, maybe, just maybe, my comments will draw a bit more attention.

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  29. Gloria Webb suggested attending Town Hall Meetings. This is a great way to keep informed. And some good questions may be asked, BUT you have to wait your turn and hope to be called on. Then there is the vast waste of time fomented by those who ask the inane, senseless questions just to bask briefly in the spotlight of questioning your Representative.

    Leeza K. wrote:”No 2 – maybe there should be an organization who can gather the info, put it together the way it should be and personally deliver it, and figure out a way so that these petitions in the correct form, have to be at least presented and accounted for at their meetings.” This would fall under the description of a lobbiest. They get paid well for their ability to get information to the eyes and ears of politicians.

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