Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How digitally engaged are our elected politicians?

There are 187 elected members in the Connecticut General Assembly. 151 in the House of Representatives, and 36 in the Senate.

Each one of them has a government-supplied email address. But how many of them actually respond to the emails they receive? Better yet, how many of them even check their inbox? Assistants don't count.

If a recent experiment of mine is to be taken seriously, the answer is not many. About 24.

We know they are busy. But we elect them to represent us, and with all the technology and social media tools we have here at the dawn of 2012, there hasn't been an easier time in the history of politics to connect with and communicate with the people you represent on a large scale.

According to Facebook, the social networking site is home to more than 800 million active users. I'm curious how many of those are elected officials that use it as a tool to reach and engage the communities they are responsible for.

After New Haven Mayor John DeStefano announced his proposal last week to allow non-citizens to vote in the city's municipal elections, I composed a short poll for the New Haven Register and emailed it to every single member of the Connecticut General Assembly. Since they will be voting on DeStefano's proposal next year, we wanted to report to our readers the state legislation's stance on this controversial issue.

I embedded a Google Spreadsheet fed automatically with their individual responses on the Register website so readers could see responses as they were sent back to us.

So, how many responded? Only 6 the first day. We have 24 at the time of this posting, with a handful of new ones each day that passes.

No, I didn't expect a comprehensive response. But 24?

It's certainly possible that many of them aren't willing to declare their stance on a proposal they haven't actually been presented with yet, but they should be familiar at this point with the issue it revolves around - voting rights for non-citizens. The poll's options included 'support, do not support, and need more information first', as well as an option to comment further, so that everyone could participate even if they didn't have a stance on the proposal just yet.

Perhaps the underwhelming response is because I emailed them a survey, and they've never heard of me before. That's possible. I'm not a political reporter and my title isn't very standard. Perhaps they thought I was some scheming wild-eyed spammer of anarchy, posing as a news representative? In my message to them all, I said I was reaching out on behalf of the New Haven Register and gave them my contact information. Was I screened? Should I have done more to establish my credibility with them? Does it even matter if I'm representing a news organization or not?

Maybe, they don't check their email? If that's the case, is that acceptable?

The interesting finding of this little experiment to me was the comments we received from readers on the response article. Some applauded the initiative and cheered us on. Some suggested we do similar polling for more issues in the future. That's the part I like -- our readers asked us to report how our elected really stand on these issues. It echoes what Jay Rosen has been calling for from the media, to make political coverage more useful to voters.

Journalists, citizens, non-citizens and politicians -- What do you think about the response we got from our state legislators on this poll? How should the New Haven Register be polling our state legislators on issues like this in the future? I'd love to hear your suggestions and ideas in the comments. And what are some examples of politicians who are very engaging in the digital age?

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