Group Opens Quirky Sotomayor Push

Facebook Fans E-Mail Senators

Posted June 5, 2009 at 3:24pm

Democracy in America reaches the people where they are. In the old days, voters could contact their elected officials through the mail, then by phone, then by fax, then by e-mail. Now, Grassroots Enterprise in Washington, D.C., has made it a little easier: Voters can e-mail their Senators directly through Facebook.

Users who declare themselves a fan of “Confirming Sonia Sotomayor as a Supreme Court Justice— can discuss the reasons that they support the judge and find more information about her on the Facebook page. More importantly, however, under a tab labeled “Take Action,— they can send a form e-mail to their Senators asking them to vote to confirm Sotomayor.

In the first 24 hours after the page was created Wednesday, about 16,000 users had become fans (making it easily the largest Sotomayor-related page on Facebook), and Grassroots Enterprise estimated that 2,500 of them had used the page to e-mail their Senators.

This seems to be the first time that Facebook users can contact their elected officials directly through the site, according to Grassroots Enterprise’s Mike Panetta, vice president for emerging media and public affairs, and Facebook’s Tim Sparapani, director of public policy.

Panetta (who moonlights as D.C.’s shadow Representative) calls the Sotomayor page an “after-school project— run through Grassroots Enterprise, not work for a client. He said it’s a “demonstration project in a lot of ways— for the bipartisan agency and something the group had been working on before the Supreme Court nomination came up, providing what the organization saw as a suitable opportunity to try it out.

Users who send an e-mail to their Senators get a list of other ways that they can get involved in the political process. The software generates lists of their e-mail addresses and builds a network of people who care about certain related issues, depending on which state they live in.

In the case of D.C. residents, for instance, the e-mail will go to Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). Though she doesn’t have a vote on Sotomayor’s confirmation, Norton is the District’s only voice in Congress. These residents are then informed about other ways to get involved in local issues.

“We’re building a list of people who care about the Supreme Court nominee and getting her confirmed,— Panetta said. “It’s not too much of a stretch to say these are the same people who would care about D.C. voting rights.—

Panetta said his job involves leveraging new technology, including the Facebook platform, to get clients’ messages out. This isn’t the first time Grassroots Enterprise has used Facebook. Panetta cited two examples, one created for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and another for the Entertainment Software Association.

Facebook’s Sparapani said the exciting thing about Grassroots Enterprise’s new application is that it encourages conversation in both directions, not just from elected official to constituents.

He highlighted elected officials who have used Facebook to inform voters, citing specifically Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R), who another Facebook employee recalled updating his status on his BlackBerry when he visited their office a couple months ago. On Thursday afternoon, Cornyn, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, updated his Facebook status to say that he was going into a meeting with Sotomayor. His update drew 47 responses over the course of the afternoon, and the Senator joined the conversation to tell users about the meeting.

Sparapani said some issues lend themselves more to involvement from Facebook users than others do.

“Obviously the less technical the subject matter, the more likely we are to get citizen participation,— he said, citing California’s recent debate over same-sex marriage as an issue that stirred up discussion online.

Ultimately, the new application is just one more example of democracy in action.

“There’s an opportunity here for dialogue,— Sparapani said. “We never know what conversation, what bit of communication, will tip the balance for an elected official who is trying to decide on a close call.—