Voters to Congress: Are you listening?

New study finds many would accept a member voting against their position if they felt heard

"Area closed" signs are posted on fencing around the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in this archive photo. A new study found that a majority of constituents don’t feel heard by their members of Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
"Area closed" signs are posted on fencing around the West Front of the U.S. Capitol in this archive photo. A new study found that a majority of constituents don’t feel heard by their members of Congress. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 17, 2021 at 6:00am

Attention members of Congress: If you’re going to cast a vote that could anger your constituents, make sure they feel like you’ve been listening to them first.

About three-quarters of people would be OK with it as long as they trusted that their views were taken into account. But a majority of constituents don’t feel heard, according to a new study.

Despite not always feeling listened to, most said interacting with their elected leaders is still valuable to democracy.

The study paints a vivid picture of citizens pining for just a little bit of understanding. Produced by the Congressional Management Foundation, it compiles data from several telephone surveys conducted between 2016 and 2020.

The report goes on to propose some steps offices can take to build trust with constituents, like choosing appropriate forums to interact with voters and empowering staff to be more involved.

“What we’re encouraging offices to do is really look at the different ways that they communicate with and engage with constituents, and think strategically about the value and the reach,” said Kathy Goldschmidt, the foundation’s director of strategic initiatives and an author of the report.

In an ideal world, congressional staff wouldn’t be spending hours each week dutifully reacting to mass mailing campaigns. Instead, they’d be thinking creatively about how to respond to constituents in ways that show they’re listening.

Many voters who have written to their member of Congress can recall a time when they received a starchy form letter weeks later thanking them for their comment, but not directly addressing their concerns.

In one survey, nearly half of people said they had contacted one of their congressional representatives in the last five years to give a viewpoint on an issue. Thirty-five percent said they had not received a response.

That kind of interaction does little to help anyone, and it can be a burden for the office’s staff who struggle to keep up with the deluge.

“We have found that there are ways for building that relationship and helping constituents better understand an issue and better understand what the member is doing and better trust the member in ways that don’t have to be onerous to anybody,” Goldschmidt said.

She believes the pandemic could cause some positive future changes after lawmakers had to adapt to holding virtual or telephone town halls. Traditionally, constituents have had a dimmer view of these events, but research indicates these types of meetings can increase engagement.

“COVID and remote work has made them all more willing and able to use technology to communicate with constituents, with their colleagues and with their staff,” she said. “I think innovations can happen.”

Avalanche of emails

More than 50 million Americans sent emails to members of Congress in 2019, but satisfaction is far from guaranteed.

Almost half of people surveyed a year earlier felt lawmakers were either “not very” or “not at all” interested in what they had to say. Of those who reached out to their representative, about 18 percent thought their effort to communicate was “very” worthwhile and 37 percent thought it was “somewhat” worthwhile.

As more and more emails pour into their offices, limited resources might be better spent elsewhere and in a way that Goldschmidt suggests could be more satisfying.

A way to boost engagement would be to allow staffers to “come out from behind the curtain.” While many offices pretend the boss is doing all the work, it could be time to drop that charade. Staffers could emerge as experts, and constituents could meet them without feeling completely “fobbed off.”

When staffers are empowered to use their own voices and explain confusing issues over the phone, voters “felt richly acknowledged,” the report says. And it saved the office time by not having to research, write and review responses.

Of course, picking up the phone can sometimes mean fielding death threats and vitriol, as staffers know all too well. That’s something the report doesn’t address.

The surveys didn’t differentiate between senators and members of the House, because constituents tend to be unable to do so themselves, Goldschmidt said.

The report is one in a series the foundation is putting out in the coming year. The hope is to get a better understanding of what engagement between citizens and lawmakers might look like in the future, said Brad Fitch, the foundation’s president and CEO.

“What we’re trying to do is identify a new paradigm on congressional engagement that’s better for the member of Congress and better for their constituents,” he said.

Much of the data in the report comes from telephone surveys of registered voters created by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland and conducted by Nielsen Scarborough.