August 29, 2014

Members of Congress are receiving an unprecedented amount of input from their constituents, coming at them through emails, snail mail and just about every form of communication you can imagine.

“The amount of mail we get really varies but safely 500 a day, and we’d say an average of close to 1,000 a day if you factor in petitions and busy in-session days,” Jill Gerber, spokeswoman for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, told Potomac Watch. “Those numbers include all forms of communication, including calls, faxes, letters, emails. All from Iowans.”
Handling that growing and tremendous volume of communication — across 435 House and 100 Senate offices — is a massive challenge.

Making sense of what constituents are telling Grassley and other members of Congress can be an even bigger challenge.

In fact, this has created a cottage industry in which private companies provide a tool for individual citizens to reach out to Congress and be sure that their message is getting through.

These services don’t charge the citizen anything, and they provide lawmakers with a dependable, measurable way to receive constituent communications.

One such service is POPVOX.com, founded in 2010 by Marci Harris and Rachna Choudhry.

POPVOX aims to “address the growing problem of voluminous, unverified, ineffective advocacy communication directed at the U.S. Congress,” Harris told Potomac Watch.

The problem “was caused by advocacy tactics that did not address the way that Congress actually worked and meant that individuals’ voices were not being heard while groups defaulted to a ‘just yell louder’ tactic, and Congress erected barriers to participation,” she said.

Faced with a barrage of emails, robo-calls and other types of communication ginned up by interest groups — and purporting to be from ordinary citizens — the folks who manage the communications networks on Capitol Hill erected various spam filters to block bogus “grassroots” communications.

But that tactic also blocked legitimate input from citizens.

The beauty of POPVOX and a few similar services is they allow a voter to quickly figure out who their representative is, that lawmaker’s stand on a given issue and then provides a way for the voter to weigh in on the issues he or she cares about.

And, on the other end of the exchange, POPVOX assures Grassley’s office, for instance, that the communication is coming from a real Iowa resident.

“Congress cares what their constituents have to say — they don’t care what ‘The Whole Internet’ thinks,” Harris said.
“I was a congressional staffer on the receiving end of all of this input and just kept thinking that there had to be a better way,” she added. “My co-founder, Rachna Choudhry, was a lobbyist for a nonprofit and knew how hard it was to actually get Congress’s attention. Technology was making it easier for people to share their opinions — but no one was helping Congress actually hear what people were saying or know if they were hearing from people who actually live in their district.”

Harris said residents of all 50 states have used the POPVOX tools to reach out to Congress.

“Over 400,000 individuals in every U.S. congressional district have used the platform to contact Congress, with over 3 million constituent opinions registered,” she said.

POPVOX is a nonpartisan tool used by Democrats, Republicans and independents. The company is also working with the House Administration Committee, along with several other companies, on a “beta project to improve electronic constituent communications,” Harris said.

POPVOX version 2.0 is coming in September, she noted.

Jill Gerber, Grassley’s spokeswoman, said the office does receive communications submitted through POPVOX as well as other services such as Countable, which you can find at countable.us.

In recent weeks, voters from across the nation have used POPVOX to weigh in with lawmakers on the fate of the Export-Import Bank, the legality of body armor, and Internet taxes, among other issues.

So what issues are Iowa voters raising with their members of Congress?

According to POPVOX, Iowans are weighing in on gun bills — lots of input on gun bills, actually — NASA funding, and ending presidential term limits (Iowans don’t like that idea).

Many of these items won’t be on the congressional agenda anytime soon, but that’s part of the fun, and value, of using a service like POPVOX or Countable.

Voters can tell lawmakers what they want to see Congress work on, not just respond to lawmakers’ priorities and actions. And, you can see what others think about issues that matter to you.

“Write your congressman” is no longer a dismissive line to get rid of busybodies.

It’s a way to have real influence and ensure that Congress is the responsive, representative body foreseen by the Founders.