Constituents who participate in online town halls are more likely to vote for their Member of Congress and approve of his position on the issue discussed than those who dont participate, according to a study released Monday.
The findings open up a new possibility in the wake of Augusts heated town halls on health care reform, where dozens of Members faced angry crowds and where policy questions often become overshadowed by loud accusations. Conducted by the Congressional Management Foundation, the study found that online town halls led to high quality discussions that were extremely popular with constituents.
People universally loved this and felt very positively about it, said Kathy Goldschmidt, CMFs deputy director. But she added, We dont in any way recommend that these are replacements for [in-person] town halls.
Most Members interact with constituents in person or through telephone town halls, where thousands of constituents can participate and submit questions with the push of a button. The online town halls differ slightly: Instead of asking questions by phone, constituents type them into a prompt box and they are immediately put into the queue. Members responses are provided in audio and in a running transcript on the screen. Members can also use PowerPoint presentations to illustrate their points.
In the CMF study, all but one of the town halls had a group of 15 to 20 constituents far less than the average tele-town hall. But researchers say the groups were diverse, representing a wider swath of society than a typical town hall meeting.
Before the town halls, 20 percent of the selected constituents approved of their Members position on immigration (the issue discussed in 20 of the 21 town halls); after participating, that number jumped to 58 percent. Moreover, 69 percent of participants voted for their Member, compared with 64 percent of control subjects (constituents who participated in the study but not in the town halls).
Swing voters were affected the most. Constituents who only had a 50 percent probability of voting for their Member jumped to 73 percent after participating in the online town hall.
But whether tele-town halls might produce the same effects is unclear. The study focused exclusively on online town halls, and the bulk of it was conducted in 2006 before most Members had even heard of tele-town halls. Conducted in partnership with the Harvard University John F. Kennedy School of Government, Northeastern University, Ohio State University and the University of California-Riverside, the study had a total cost of $180,000.
Most of the 13 Members who participated in the study havent used online town halls since, though some say they might use them in the future. Austin Weatherford, a staffer in Rep. Mike Conaways office, said the Texas Republican is considering using them in the near future, but only if the office can find the technology to stream a Web video of the Congressman answering questions.
That seems like the future and the best way to do it, he said. Right now we do a lot of tele-town halls and those are great, but there is a disconnect because he cant see them and they cant see him.
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) said her tele-town halls already use some of the benefits of the online system. Constituents ask questions by phone, she said, but staffers type them into a computer system where Lofgren is also able to see them. One call can attract thousands of constituents, most of whom are randomly called.
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