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Digital democracy threatened

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By Bill Pease

Email has revolutionized the ability of citizens to communicate with their legislators.

Each year, over 300 million messages are sent to Capitol Hill.

Without sufficient staff or information-technology resources to manage this tidal wave of digital communications, however, most members of Congress view this increase in citizen correspondence as an administrative burden to be reduced.

Fewer than 10 percent of Senators and 15 percent of members of the House Representatives accept standard email from constituents.

Most Hill offices only accept digital communications submitted by way of  web forms — custom web pages that collect a citizen’s contact information and comments, and submit them to an office’s correspondence-management system.

In early June 2006, the House announced it was modifying the “Write Your Representative” web-form system used by most House members.

House offices can now opt to challenge constituents with math problems or “logic puzzles” before they are allowed to submit a comment.

The House’s rationale for this new communication barrier is that lobbying messages are not being sent by citizens, but rather by nonprofit organizations engaged in spamming.

So the logic puzzle is designed to “prevent the practice” of organizations mobilizing grassroots supporters to communicate with elected officials.

This explanation reveals serious misperceptions that pose a significant threat to the future of digital democracy.

The facts are that constituent communications are not spam. These lobbying messages are not unsolicited commercial email, nor are they being sent by automated programs without sender consent.

Advocacy organizations are not spammers. Organizations are using web-based solutions to make it easy for constituents to communicate with elected officials. The constituent is sending the message, not the organization.

While online advocacy vendors have deployed technical solutions that ensure messages continue to be delivered, an “arms race” between advocacy organizations and congressional offices is counterproductive. The nonprofit sector needs to pursue a two-track strategy.

First, join hundreds of organizations across the political spectrum to lobby Congress about the legitimacy and value of constituent communications by visiting (http://www.dontblockmyvoice.org/).

Second, support an open, standards-based solution. Technical solutions can help to manage constituent communications and relationships.

Technical barriers that restrict communications aren’t the answer.

We need to develop and support funding for the adoption of a system that enables citizens to communicate effectively with elected officials.


Bill Pease is chief technology officer for GetActive Software in Washington, D.C.

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