Last week, state Sen. Phil Baruth's inbox was brimming with emails from Vermonters telling him how to vote on various bills. Sen. Diane Snelling estimates that she sometimes receives 100 emails and a dozen phone messages in a day.
Thanks to technology, it's never been easier for Vermonters to send messages to their legislators. But is tech actually connecting constituents with lawmakers?
Some legislators say that because it's so easy to hit send, email messages are more shallow and less compelling. "It's hard to tell what someone's level of interest is if all they've got to do is push a button," Snelling said.
Increasingly, lawmakers say, they are buried in an avalanche of rote messages sent at the urging of advocacy groups. "They don't walk and talk like a message from one person to another," said Baruth, who is serving his third two-year term. "A lot of it is canned, and a lot of it has to be skimmed or ignored. The technology is, ironically, not helping."
Two Vermonters interested in democracy and technology want to change that. Benjamin Brown and Alexander Beck have just launched the web application NewGrassRoots, which combines the ease of email with the greater personalization of voicemail. It works like this: A Vermonter signs up on the website, newgrassroots.com, chooses a bill and checks off the name of a legislator — automatically listed based on the user's address — to send a message to. The system then calls the user's phone and allows them to record a voicemail. NewGrassRoots then sends an email to the legislator with a link to the recorded message.
Messages are in the user's own voice and are more personal than the generic group emails lawmakers are growing inured to, Brown said. "We envision legislators will be hearing directly from their constituents in their own words right before they vote."
The duo's Rutland-based company is the result of crossing a chicken farmer (Brown) with an international development aide (Beck). Brown, 35, of Pittsford, traces his activism to farming: He helped push for the legalization of industrial hemp so he could feed his chickens homegrown hemp seeds. But he got hooked on democracy two years ago when pushing for a Vermont resolution that called for a constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United.
Helping supporters contact their legislators — and keeping track of who had been called and who had responded — was no easy organizational task, Brown said. The Statehouse phone line was often busy during the day and rang without answer at night. The effort worked, though. Vermont was the first state to call for a constitutional convention.
"I felt like my voice may have actually mattered," Brown said. "The lack of tools to measure the success of our call campaign and hold legislators accountable spawned my idea for NewGrassRoots."
Beck, 25, came from Massachusetts to Vermont to attend the School for International Training in Brattleboro. After working in international development in Rwanda, he decided there was just as much need for his technological skills in Vermont, so he stayed in Brattleboro.
NewGrassRoots is still in its beta stage. Brown and Beck have introduced some legislators to the system and received positive feedback. They plan to more widely promote their product in the coming weeks.
The web app is free and will remain that way for legislators and constituents, but eventually the pair plans to generate income by charging advocacy organizations. The system will be able to tell those groups exactly how many messages were sent and which legislators opened them.
Last week, Seven Days sent test messages to six Chittenden County senators and one representative; all but one went unopened. Baruth opened the message, while others said they flipped past without realizing what it was.
How did the messages go unnoticed? Easily.
When the messages arrived in legislators' email inboxes, the sender was listed as "NewGrassRoots" with a "constituent message." They looked like standard-issue junk mail from a generic, unfamiliar company — messages destined to be ignored.
Snelling found the email in her inbox only after it was described to her. "I do recall seeing it and thinking it was odd because it said, 'constituent message' and 'NewGrassRoots' instead of a name," Snelling said. The email was no more eye-catching to Rep. Joan Lenes (D-Shelburne). "I almost deleted it," she said.
That's exactly what Brown and Beck were trying to prevent. Within days of hearing that legislators had scanned past Seven Days' test messages, Brown said he had updated the system. Now when lawmakers receive the email, it is listed as being from the constituent, sent through the NewGrassRoots email address.
Legislators say that messages from real people are the ones that resonate. "What they're doing might actually work," said Rep. Sam Young (D-Glover), a self-described computer geek. "Voicemails are definitely more useful. We're all just inundated with emails."
One thing the NewGrassRoots system already has going for it: recording representatives' attentiveness. The system allows constituents to keep track of when messages are sent and whether legislators open them, Brown said. It also shows legislators how all their constituents — and those across the state — stand on a bill.
"What our goal is, is to inform the public on whether their voices are heard. We will have data to determine, by bill, which legislator listens to his or her constituents," Brown said.
But neither email nor voicemail, it seems, can replace a real conversation with a constituent, either on the phone or in person. "If it's important, they call," Young said.
Sen. Dustin Degree (R-Franklin) used to work as a constituent correspondent for former governor Jim Douglas. With that training, the freshman senator records every constituent contact he receives. He hears from people via email, phone and Facebook.
Which resonates the most? "It's still a phone call," Degree said. Baruth agrees: "Somebody who calls me and leaves a voicemail or sends a 'Dear Phil' letter with details." Lenes concurs that phone calls beat email, but as for her real preference, "I like face-to-face," she said. "Sometimes grocery shopping takes a long time."
The original print version of this article was headlined "You've Got Voicemail: Will a New Web App Make Constituent Voices Heard?"
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