Tuesday, October 10, 2006


Updates: Electoral college, and Congressional spam

In the last week there've been two items in the NYT and the WaPo that update some things I've said before. Today's the day to look at them.

In March I wrote, in "Drop out of college", about an idea — not mine, but one I support — that would allow states to amend their election laws to essentially negate the electoral college system and give control of the presidential elections to the nationwide popular vote. Well the first attempt to implement this idea has just been made: the California legislature passed a bill to do just that. Unfortunately, The Governator vetoed it:

Saying it ran "counter to the tradition of our great nation," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill on Saturday that would have automatically allocated all the state’s 55 electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate received the national popular vote.
Supporters are considering making it a ballot proposition to get around the veto, a system available in California, but not in most other states.

In June I wrote about mechanisms used to keep spam out of congressional inboxes, and how they affect the ability for organizations to get legitimate email to the representatives. The Washington Post's Jeff Birnbaum has some new information about this, along with his opinions on its effect:

Now we know that these efforts are working well. According to the Capitol Advantage study, six of the 10 leading companies that run Web sites that send e-mails for interest groups failed to deliver even half of those e-mails through their systems.
Mr Birnbaum's question about this is, "Aren't public officials supposed to be open to the public?"

They are, indeed, and this demonstrates another cost of spam, beyond the obvious ones. Where attempts to keep spam out of your inbox and mine might result in a few "false positives" a year, attempts to keep my congresswoman's inbox clean may be preventing a great deal of real communication from constituents from getting through, interfering with our first-amendment right to petition the government.

The thing is, though, that that might be part of the plan as well. There's certainly reason to believe, from observation and from talking with congressional staff, that they don't want all that email from constituents. Anyway, one effect of this is that organizations are switching back to paper mail and faxes, even taking to printing the email and getting it to the legislators on paper — quite an ironic turn.

Irony aside, though, the implication that our legislators don't care to hear from us is disturbing, if not entirely surprising. I've personally had no trouble getting my messages to Senators Schumer and Clinton, and to Representative Kelly, at least judging from the "thank you for writing" confirmations I've received. Yet, of course, I have no idea whether the messages I send are read, tallied, considered, or acted upon. I suspect that when I write a three-paragraph note detailing my opinion on a matter, along with my advice... some staffer glances at it and turns it into the incrementing of a "pro" or "con" count on an issues spreadsheet.

Mr Birnbaum's take on all this:

That strikes me as the bigger issue: Not whether every e-mail is getting through to Congress but how many of them are being read with serious interest. I bet a closer look at that issue would be even more unsettling to Web site operators and their clients than the latest estimate of delivery rates.

No comments: