Do Politicians Read the Emails You Send Them?

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obama contact composite

It sounds like the setup to a joke: How do you get a politician’s attention?

But it’s a question worth asking. The Internet has made it easier for constituents to send messages to the politicians who represent them — messages to Congress quadrupled between 1995 and 2004 — but it’s less certain that anyone is actually reading those messages.

Between 2007 and 2010, University of Bologna and NYU-Florence political scientist Christian Vaccari sent emails to 142 political parties and presidential candidates in seven western democracies, including the U.S., to gauge how each responded. He sent two emails to each party and candidate: One asked for the party or candidate’s position on taxes, the other asked for information about how to get involved as a volunteer.

At a conference on digital-era campaigning in London last month, Vaccari reported that only one in five of his emails received a reply within one business day; the majority of the emails, almost two-thirds, went unanswered. Vaccari found that, in general, parties tended to respond more often than individual candidates, and progressive parties tended to respond more often than conservative parties.

via Christian Vaccari's post for The Monkey Cage blog.

Vaccari also found that, overall, U.S. parties and candidates responded less often than in the six other western democracies he looked at: Australia, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the U.K.

Where do the emails go?

Shayna Englin is a political advocacy and communications consultant — she researches what she calls “The Advocacy Gap.” Englin says many emails may not be read right away, or, possibly, at all. Staffers may be overloaded; emails from constituents might end up filed in a lengthy backlog.

“There is no one system, there is no one set of standards [American politicians] follow,” Englin says. “Essentially, in most offices on both the House and the Senate side, there is some process for logging communication that comes in from constitutents. When we’re talking about email or online petition signatures, it’s hard to weed out who is an actual person in their district.”

Signing an online petition might feel like advocacy, but if the petition is sent to a politician that the signer doesn’t help to elect, the petition may hold less weight. The same applies to form letters to legislators provided by many advocacy websites.

But that doesn’t mean the Web — and email specifically — cannot be a tool for advocacy.

“Sending an email is totally fine. Just do your best to make sure the email doesn’t read or sound like a form letter,” Englin says. “And make sure you say you’re a constituent. If I was going to write a letter to my congressman, I would include some detail about my neighborhood. … If you’re writing in because you care about tax rates — why? What does it mean for your family, what does it mean for your business?”

But Englin says, rather than sending an email, the best way to make sure a politician gets your message is still to call up his or her office local office — or even better, go there in person — and tell a staffer why an issue is important to you.


Increasingly, social media is also becoming a way for constituents to communicate directly with politicians. Earlier this year, Newark Mayor Cory Booker used Twitter to keep in touch with his constituents when Hurricane Sandy slammed the city.

“Social media provides a very important mechanism to communicate directly with people about issues that often don’t get the attention they deserve by the mainstream media,” Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) wrote in an email. “We have seen, for example, lively and smart conversations on my Facebook, Twitter and Google+ pages on issues like the collapsing middle class, growing income and wealth disparity, increased poverty in our country and the lack of adequate health and dental care.”

Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) was an early adopter and is still an active Tweeter — in 2009, Time named her one of the top ten celebrity Tweeters “because she actually reveals herself in her posts.”

“Twitter helps me get a sense of what folks are talking about,” McCaskill (@clairemc) wrote to us (@MoyersStaff) in a Twitter direct message. “Forces me to make direct contact with Missourians every day which keeps me grounded. And I love that it’s one place where no one edits me!”

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  • Tatiana

    Interesting article. Thanks

  • Jiri
  • qitqat

    IF they don’t read the e-mails, what do we do…..go camp out at their office!

  • TroyOH

    My representative, John Boehner, gets 30k emails a day (as I was told when I called his office in DC). They assured me that he personally reads all of his emails, and then they hung up on me. I did get an incredibly deceptive form letter back once, but mostly I’ve been ignored. It feels like I may as well be writing a wish list to Santa.

  • Richard Ellmyer

    If you want to be effective communicating an idea, proposal etc. with your member of congress, find the local staffer who handles the issue you are most concerned about and then email the staffer, call the staffer and visit the staffer. Develop a relationship with that person. It takes much, much more time and energy than whipping off an angry email to your representatives. But, your chances of success in getting your message across are a million times greater with a staffer than directly with their bosses.

    Richard Ellmyer
    Portland, Oregon
    Certified Oregon Change Agent by governor John Kitzhaber
    37 year political activist

  • Jeremy Grimm

    Excellent advice, much appreciated! One question — how would you recommend finding out what staffer handles the issue that concerns you?

  • susanpub

    He claims to read 30k email – what BS! It’s just 1 lie after another with so many of these guys (& gals). I’m sick to puking of Washington right now & their little game of chicken!

  • susanpub

    Interesting but depressing.

  • Byard Pidgeon

    I wrote emails to Oregon state reps and senators, prior to the recent “special tax breaks for certain corporations” special session of the legislature…and got zero response. Being ignored isn’t a problem confined to the federal level.

  • Clara Coen

    I write to Senators and reps who may not be my own too, because I feel that in the end, the way they vote will also affect me and my community.. I also thought that, even if I do not get a response, the office counts the pros and cons…But after reading this article, I just may have to break down and get a Twitter account.

  • Anonymous

    No, by the response that I received absolutely not.

  • Harland Nelson

    If you write a letter, either (1) send it to the politician c/o one of his/her offices in the district (staff will get it to the politician, avoiding the weeks-long anthrax scare delay; or (2) fax it to the politician’s Washigton office.

    Harland Nelson,

  • Dennis Perry, N.D.

    I guess I need to learn to work my Twitter account. As a new doctor, as an individual interested in policy, and as an individual.

  • Joan Gunn Broadfield

    Some of my letters get answered right away – a stall procedure I am sure. When I do get an answer, it is clear that even if they like that I wrote, they are firmly tied to their position and do not show any interest in changing.

    Building a relationship with a congressional legislative is a long term deal, is best done with supporters around you, and should also include being in touch with local and DC offices. There are places on the web that give a lot of information about legislators, including PAC information and ways to connect. Friends Committee on National Legislation is one of them.

  • Nypapajoe

    A sure way is paying for a lobbyist to represent you! But if you don’t get one that represents the Banking, Financial, Defense Industry or Corporation or a CPAC forget about it!

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for these guidelines. I have taken to sending letters (addressed to my representatives) to three newspapers in the greater Philadelphia area. As with the socal media, there is always the risk that these letters will never see the pages of any of these papers. Nonethless, I will continue this method of reaching my distant reps.

  • TheTransAtlanticRailroad

    That emails, if read, would likely be read by a staffer and result in little more than an up or down click on a laptop or smart-pad counter comes as no surprise. The illusion of being heard is powerful. The illusion of possibly influencing our representative even the slightest toward our point-of-view is inspiring. But it is all, ultimately, illusion.
    On the other hand, what are the chances of being heard if we never send an email? never send a letter? never make a call?

  • Karen Clark

    I heard that it only takes SIX PHONE CALLS to a Congressperson to change her or his mind on a position. Six–that’s all.

  • Gadfly Granny

    I’ve written 164 letters to the President… I’ve received several “form letter replies” one on note paper that was also a standard form type response. I know he received 100’s of 1000’s of letters, but you’d think someone on the staff would recognize that one person had sent 164 letters on many different topics… I’m just sayin’…

  • Anonymous

    Opinion and query emails are little more than spam or graffiti to the Internet bulletin board unless it is sent to someone specific who is known to the sender, etc. The best that the Internet can do is raise the consciousness level of anyone happens to see a writing. Most people don’t care, and most don’t have time to read them anyway.

    The Internet, itself, has become little more than a giant news rag of information, some of good quality, most of questionable quality. It is a global town hall, and hence, has merit as potential communicator. It is the equivalent to people all talking at once, as if in tongues. Today, with hacking, it’s even unreliable as to where it comes from, or who wrote it. It is a graffiti board at best, I.e., the public square. That is its beauty in a world of freedom of speech that no liability can reliably attach except in specific circumstance of stalking or cyber bullying, and mobbing. It is a tool to promote discussion and debate, but proxy for democracy otherwise.

  • mBrecker

    In my case, I’ve tried to contact almost all the progressive people in Congress. I’ve been laughed at, told because I’m not from the Congressperson’s state I basically don’t exist, and repeatedly blown off. I’ve even had some staffer put words in my mouth and try to distort the conversation.
    In the real world, if a staffer repeatedly did this, they’d be sacked. Yet, because it’s Congress (and odds are this person is an intern or some low paid staffer) that makes it okay? And they still don’t understand why so many people hate them?

  • MBrecker

    Is it because they don’t understand, or they just could care less what I think?

  • Mary

    My senators and representative receive frequent emails from me on a variety of issues. Occasionally Senator Inhoff replies. Senator Coburn almost always replies. Representative Bridenstien has yet to reply to any letter. Their views are far removed from mine, and Senator Inhoff’s replies can usually be accurately described as “nonanswers”. We actually have no representation in Washington.

  • Anonymous

    Effective? Hardly! Many government employees have set up spam filters specifically for your name: