Efficacy of postcards for lobbying elected representatives in the US
February 1, 2017 7:18 PM   Subscribe

Do we have a congressional or senate staffer in the house? Phone lines are constantly engaged and voice mailboxes are full. Even if you can leave a message, in a lot of offices the messages are not being picked up. Activists are being told that writing to congresspeople and senators is currently the most effective open avenue but do postcards "count?" I need to know if they are as effective as letters, and if not, the relative value of a postcard compared to a letter.

As an example, I'm imagining my state senator getting 1,000 postcards with VOTE NO ON (whatever) on one side and a short message unique to the sender with a name and ZIP code on the other side.

On the one hand, a postcard isn't the same as a letter.

On the other hand, a) I'm not confident that mail is being opened b) a stack of 1,000 identical postcards makes it clear with zero effort that there are 1,000 people writing from the "no" side of a given issue.
posted by DarlingBri to Law & Government (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know the direct answer to your question, but even when their phone lines are jammed, oftentimes, their fax machines are running just fine:


I used those the other day, and seemed to go through just fine.
posted by furnace.heart at 7:30 PM on February 1, 2017 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Any U.S. mail to a federal office - including postcards - must go be irradiated before it goes to the office. This FAQ from Senator Patty Murray's site says that that process delays mail from getting to them by 1-2 weeks. So mailing anything to advocate for a particular yea/nay vote is likely to be useless because of this delay.

I've seen a lot of folks doing what furnace.heart recommended. Pat Toomey is one of my senators and his voicemail box has been conveniently full for weeks, so lots of Pennsylvanians are faxing him through free Internet services. In fact, people are faxing him more than any other U.S. lawmaker.
posted by anotheraccount at 7:42 PM on February 1, 2017 [4 favorites]

At the moment, they're saying phone lines are so jammed that letters and emails are "counting" more than usual because they can at least get through all of them. I would think that 1000 of the same postcard coming to the same office would definitely get attention -- they do go through all the incoming mail.
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 7:45 PM on February 1, 2017

I think there is something irresistible about a postcard, or at least those with an interesting or colorful photo on them. Even postal carriers, who look at mail all day, will read a postcard they pick up on their route. I'd think a well-chosen, hand written postcard would have a better chance of getting read than a letter. Short, sweet, photo reward and no paper cuts from opening.

The fax idea sounds great too!
posted by mulcahy at 8:11 PM on February 1, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Any U.S. mail to a federal office - including postcards - must go be irradiated before it goes to the office... so mailing anything to advocate for a particular yea/nay vote is likely to be useless because of this delay.

Well shit. I guess faxing wins.

So let me re-ask:

Do we have a congressional or Senate staffer in the house who can tell me if faxes are an effective form of contact and if they are actually read or at least tallied?
posted by DarlingBri at 8:19 PM on February 1, 2017

When needing to set up a meeting with Congressional staff or members of Congress I've routinely used their fax numbers. The messages are generally responded to pretty promptly, which tells me that someone is actually picking up the faxes and reading them.

Each office is different and some might ignore email or faxes or snail mail or phone calls or al of the above or whatever. Some offices are pretty organized and make real effort to deal with all constituent mail (most, in my experience) and others just don't care or a sort of disorganized (a relative few, in my experience).

In general, congressional offices seem to have faxes and use/rely on them for routine communication.
posted by flug at 8:36 PM on February 1, 2017

While I believe that bags full of postcard mail will get noticed, I don't think for a second that anyone is going to read them. I've personally decided not to bother with this type of protest, thought i can see that it serves as a lure to get people face-to-face and that can result in further organizing, so that's good.
posted by Miko at 8:48 PM on February 1, 2017

I've had good luck calling the local office (I'm in a major, but not capitol, city). I was even encouraged to call every day(!).

Lately I've seen calls for emails - short, 2-4 sentences and directed to my senator's chief of staff. I've been doing one or the other.

No one here has mentioned emailing yet. That seems like it would be more efficient than a postcard that's held back for poison control.

I've also made a point of following them on all social media - I'm sure it doesn't "count" for anything, but if they get 20k likes for something, maybe that catches their attention? Who the hell knows how all this plays out.

Ugh. Faxing.
posted by crankyrogalsky at 8:59 PM on February 1, 2017

Re: Miko's Comment

Putting it in writing leaves a record. Faxing leaves a record on both ends.

DO written and face-to-face. Faxing + face-to-face seems ideal. Faxing if nothing else. Fax + email if face-to-face is not possible.

Source: Am not currently in this sector, but written records always used to count more. In this day and age, who knows?
posted by jbenben at 10:16 PM on February 1, 2017

Content is king in my experience of filing the 'campaign' letters/postcards with no followup, and drafting the responses to personally written letters (ie did NOT use the form letters - they are readily identified). Do write politely, concisely and make a concrete point or ask a specific question. Do NOT use a postcard or any pre-prepared text if you want to be read.

What response you will get is anyone's guess, but that will give you the best chance of it being a) read and b) replied to.
posted by GeeEmm at 1:21 AM on February 2, 2017

Best answer: It depends on the office, but postcards will almost always be delayed because of mail irradiation, and if they have any sort of gloss coating, that melts in the process and causes them to stick together. So if you send snail mail of any kind, use the plainest paper stock you can.

Faxes go to an email inbox in most offices (paper is expensive). Email is fine. If you just want to be tallied, form emails are batched and counted. If you want to be read, don't borrow text that the mail management program can match to anyone else's letter.

The #1 best thing to do in most cases, if you can't get into the DC or district office for a meeting, is find out who the legislative staffer responsible for the topic is, cultivate a relationship if you can, and contact that specific person ahead of a vote. POLITELY. Because in a functional office, that staffer will be making a recommendation to their boss. The member of Congress still has to make a decision, but the smart ones hire serious people and listen to them.

But don't send glossy cards.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 4:05 AM on February 2, 2017 [9 favorites]

Putting it in writing leaves a record.

Email is a written record. Phone calls to a live person are actually tabulated and recorded daily, so you know the message is at least being heard by someone. Phone calls to voice mails (like Ryan's weird-ass phone poll with the minute of silence that I think is just an old push poll people discovered by accident). I doubt that the postcards are going to be parsed for message - especially because so many of them that I'm seeing people post online are near-incoherent.
posted by Miko at 6:03 AM on February 2, 2017

Response by poster: bowtiesarecool thank you, that is what I wanted to know. Are the faxes converted to PDF or are they using OCR and storing as text?
posted by DarlingBri at 6:24 AM on February 2, 2017

Are the faxes converted to PDF or are they using OCR and storing as text?

It's been a few years since I last had my hands on a congressional mail system, but when I was there it was image files that we could view, batch, and tag (supports Bill X vs opposes Bill X, etc). I wouldn't be surprised if someone offers an OCR solution now, since that would save offices a ton of time. I think most congressional offices really are trying to make a good faith effort to at least correctly tabulate all their incoming messages.

Also as an FYI for anyone who comes across this later, the Congressional Management Foundation, which does the best nonpartisan research out there on this stuff, will be releasing a new version of its report on the effectiveness of various modes of advocacy on the Hill in two weeks.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 7:38 AM on February 2, 2017 [7 favorites]

I don't think the mail is irradiated if you send to district offices (at least, this was the case in my experience, which is admittedly a few years old). But information on members' websites seems to back this up -- for example, this contact page notes that DC mail only is delayed. So, I think postcards are fine, just send to a district office -- it will still be tabulated and the information is passed on to DC. I would suggest the same for phone calls; I usually have a much easier time connecting to district offices. You can store all the numbers in your phone and just quickly run through them until you get one that works.
posted by rainbowbrite at 8:29 AM on February 2, 2017 [2 favorites]

The anthrax attacks after 9-11 mean that letters in envelopes are going to be inspected and possibly destroyed before they are read.
posted by brujita at 12:06 PM on February 2, 2017

I can only speak to Australian politics, but I sent photos with handwritten messages on the back (7 cents to print per photo) plus colourful stickers to politicians. I had around a 1/3 written response rate, but it was significantly delayed - letters came back over months.
posted by quercus23 at 4:07 AM on February 4, 2017

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