Send email to your representative! On second thought, don't

Study finds that Congressional filters are blocking most emails citizens send in through advocacy groups. To get around the blocks, some companies are converting emails to fax.
Written by Richard Koman, Contributor

Check your email. Did you get a message from some political group, suggesting you send an email to your senator or congressman? If your group uses a third-party service to deliver those emails to Congress, the chances are good they were never delivered.

A new study by one of those companies shows that plenty of constituent e-mails never reach lawmakers' offices, Jeffrey Birnbaum writes in The Washington Post.

"Citizens would be understandably upset if they knew that letters they sent through the U.S. Post Office were never delivered," writes Dennis W. Johnson, a George Washington University professor who oversaw the study for the e-mail company, Capitol Advantage. "Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that much of the electronic mail that citizens assume is reaching Congress is ending up in an electronic trash can."

That's because IT folk on the Hill are actively searching for ways to throttle to flow of issue-oriented traffic.

Some congressional offices are now insisting that would-be emailers solve a simple math problem (to prove they are real human beings and not some machine spamming them with the push of a button). Many offices are also demanding that constituents disclose what issue they want to communicate about and to reveal information about themselves: Zip code, street address, e-mail address, phone number and the like.

The efforts are working. Most email sent to citizens' representatives do not reach anyone. The study found six out of 10 leading companies failed to deliver even half of the sent emails through their systems.

Lawmakers tend to think that e-mail communications and, in fact, almost all mass mailings are fake and can easily be disregarded, several executives said.

The solution? Providers print out the emails and fax them en masse. How ridiculous is that?

Many of the missives that actually reach their targets are not accorded attention by the people who matter. Faxes, in particular, have low credibility with lawmakers.

And, Birnbaum says, the issue raises a more pressing issue: Even if emails did get through without being converted to fax, would anyone pay them any attention anyway? Lawmakers feel justified in blocking off these emails because staff wouldn't read them or credit them even if they did get in.

An earlier poll of congressional staffers, also underwritten by Capitol Advantage, touched on this. It discovered that half of the aides it surveyed thought the folks whose names were attached to the e-mails they receive aren't aware that the e-mails were sent to Capitol Hill. Another 25 percent of staffers questioned whether those communications were legitimate.

That strikes me as the bigger issue: Not whether every e-mail is getting through to Congress but how many of them are being read with serious interest. I bet a closer look at that issue would be even more unsettling to Web site operators and their clients than the latest estimate of delivery rates.

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