More Americans are contacting government officials than ever before. Companies are developing new tools to make contacting legislators as easy as ordering a pizza. People want to believe that by calling their representatives, they are making their voices heard. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been asked to contact a legislator about one issue or another.
Unfortunately, my research strongly indicates that high-volume constituent contact on policy issues has at best a negligible effect, and at worst a negative effect, on legislators’ actions. The next time you’re asked to call your member of Congress about a policy issue, you might want to put down the phone.
I conducted an experiment on hundreds of state legislators in the United States, randomly assigning each to one of four groups. Some of these legislators were asked to imagine what they would do if they received six e-mails about a hypothetical bill (a lower volume of e-mails). Others were asked what they would do if they received 60 e-mails about a hypothetical bill (a higher volume of e-mails). One hypothetical bill was about gun control (a higher-attention issue); the other was about the labeling of genetically modified foods (a lower-attention issue).
The results weren’t promising for people who believe that constituent contact alters policy. On the high-attention issue, there was no difference in support between the legislators who received the high volume of e-mails and those who received the low volume of e-mails.
More troubling, on the lower-attention issue, support for the bill was actually lower among the legislators who were told that they received more e-mails. The difference here was quite substantial. Support among those legislators who were told they had received more e-mails was half that of those who were told they had received fewer e-mails.
There is no reason to believe that these effects are different for phone calls, faxes, or even face-to-face meetings. Legislators are bombarded with information, and their offices are understaffed.
But the issue here isn’t simply a problem of processing too much information. Instead, it’s that most legislators already think they know how constituents feel about issues. They conduct polls in their districts. They learn about what constituents want through campaigns and elections. They also belong to political parties that have fairly defined ideologies, and they make specific policy promises in the course of an election.
Given all this, it’s easy for legislators to dismiss a sudden appearance of concerned constituents as “paid protesters.” It’s not that elected officials don’t care what you think. It’s that they think they already have a pretty good idea of what you think without you having to call them every week.
I also interviewed more than 30 legislators and interest group leaders as part of this research. All the legislators said that they wanted to hear from constituents, especially their personal stories about their experiences with a policy. A constituent who can connect his or her own personal story to a policy has a much more powerful impact than one who just regurgitates facts sent in an e-mail blast. But these personal stories are frequently drowned out by the deluge of superficial advocacy that legislators receive. And the recent increase in high-volume, repetitive e-mails will only make this problem worse.
What should you do instead? Avoid sending an e-mail that reads like a press release or a briefing book. Talk about why a particular policy is important to you and how it affects your life. If you don’t have a good story to tell, don’t press send. More importantly, any group that brags about the volume of e-mails that it sends doesn’t deserve your money. There are many groups doing incredible work at every level of government — find them and give to them.
Of course, my data are limited. This is only one study, conducted at the state legislative level. I’m willing to be wrong, and there are other great researchers working on this topic. Moving forward, I think it’s important to ask two questions: Would legislators behave any differently if they weren’t receiving all of these contacts from constituents? And, how can we make constituent contact work for legislators, groups, and citizens all at once?
John Cluverius is an assistant professor of political science at University of Massachusetts Lowell.