Write to your elected representative! (2.0)

28. January 2009 – 17:18 by Bengt Feil

Writing letters to elected representatives has always been one of the more effective ways for citizens to state their concern for a political question or to make their opinion clear to “their” member of parliament. This seems perfectly reasonable: If hundreds or even thousands members of the constituency write to a member of parliament how can he or she ignore the statements – both as a responsible representative and a politician who would like to get re-elected?

In the United States this practice is often used by citizens to reach out to both the members of the Senate and the House of Representatives. In more recent years the “letter” on paper was often exchanged by an email. But there is one particular problem with email in this setting: There is no post stamp on it and therefore it can not be determined on first glance if the email is really from a member of the parliamentarian’s constituency – This does limit the effect of email in comparison to letters (one could argue that there is also a psychological impact related to the fact that a member of parliament gets a “real letter” signed by a “real citizen”). Does this mean that the proliferation of the internet and the social networks developing in it does not affect this practice of political participation? No, but the influence is indirect.

Take for example President Obama: In many situations he faces resistance of both chambers to his political decisions and has to fear that his programs and proposed actions are stopped by the parliament (As for example with his Economic Recovery Plan). But Mr Obama has collected 13 million Email addresses, 4,7 million supporters on Facebook, 1,2 million friends on Myspace and 170.000 followers on Twitter (to name just a few of his web activities) as part of his campaign – All of these numbers represent persons who in some form or another support him and are likely to grow in the next months and years. So if he faces a critical vote in the Senate or House he can directly contact at least 15 million US citizens (taking into account that many of his supporter are on different services at the same time) and ask them to write to their elected representative. This means that there is an average of 150.000 citizens who could write to each single one of the 100 Senators or 34.000 for each member of the House of Representatives. One can assume that if only a small fraction of these persons actually do pick up a pen to write and sign a letter their elected representatives is likely to change or at least rethink their opinion on the subject at hand.

This mechanism does add to the informal power of the president but he is not the only one who can make use of the old tradition of letter writing in combination with web tools to make a point with members of parliament. NGOs or citizen organisations for example can use the internet to call for action much more efficiently then a few years ago. This example shows that even traditional means of public participation in the political process are changing because of the faster and more efficient communication made possible by the web. 

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