Real Legislators, Virtual Town Halls

By on July 17, 2017

In late June, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ11) held a town hall that involved a reported 11,000 constituents. Not in person: There aren’t any venues that large in the 11th Congressional District that Frelinghuysen represents. This town hall, like all the others that the congressman has conducted in the last four years, was a “virtual” town hall that occurred over the phone.

Town hall meetings conducted by phone or over the Internet are used by many legislators to stay in touch with their constituents. They can be a way to reach more constituents than can fit in a meeting hall, and reach audiences that are broader than a legislator’s base or opposition. Virtual conferencing technology–like that used in most modern corporations–can enable people to see and hear meetings that would be difficult to attend in person, and, when virtual polling is incorporated into the meeting, to give their opinions on issues that can go beyond the headlines. At a virtual meeting, questions could be selected according to the biggest interests of the district and not because of who got in line at the microphone first.

Virtual town halls can, however, just as easily be an ineffective substitute for in-person forums or meet-and-greets. Without a concerted effort to notify and involve all constituents, only those already for or against the legislator are likely to participate. Legislative staffs could stifle discussion by declining to put through callers who challenge their boss’ positions. Improper moderation could stack the call with questions that can be answered in platitudes and not substance. By only taking random questions, a legislator would still have no idea whether healthcare was a bigger issue for constituents than education, road construction, mass transit, environmental protection or the price of gas. And finally, no matter how many people can be brought in over phone lines or computer connections, there are still only so many questions that a legislator can field in an hour. Just as in a real town hall.

Michael Neblo believes that virtual town halls can be valuable–if done right. An associate professor of political science at Ohio State University, he studies how members of Congress stay in touch with their constituents. “People who show up in person are the strongest supporters and the strongest critics,” Neblo says, “and it turns out that they are the smallest segment of the population.”

According to Neblo, telephone and web-based town halls first popped up out west in legislative districts that were hard to reach on a quick trip home from Washington. The 11th Congressional District, by contrast, is only about a four-hour drive or a short flight from Washington. But, thanks to heavy gerrymandering, the 11th includes 54 towns in four counties. Its borders stretch from the Passaic River in Nutley to the western edge of Sparta (a one-hour drive if you’re really lucky), and from Wanaque in the north down to Harding Township. When NJ11th for Change, a group that’s been trying to get Frelinghuysen to hold in-person town halls, held its own without him early this year, it used three different locations.

Here’s how a phone town hall works. The legislator generally contracts with a virtual meeting service, such as Shoutpoint or Broadnet, which says it is used by more than 60% of the members of Congress. (MyVeronaNJ does not know which service, if any, Frelinghuysen uses because his press secretary did not respond to our emails seeking information for this story.) The service dials phone numbers provided by constituents, both landlines and mobile, and listeners can press a prompt to ask a question. It can also give legislators tools to alert constituents to upcoming town halls through their website and social media, screen and select questions, poll listeners during the call, broadcast the meetings in real time and archive them for later playback. Legislators can often get custom caller IDs, which might have helped at the most recent Frelinghuysen meeting, where the call appeared to come from many places outside New Jersey–like Ohio and California–prompting some who had registered to not pick up the call because they thought it was a telemarketer.

Ohio State’s Prof. Neblo believes that, to do a virtual town hall right, three things are essential. The first is to have a neutral moderator. “Get the League of Women Voters, a respected journalist, a Boy Scout leader,” he says. “Someone recognized as not having an axe to grind or being controlled by the member.” A moderator can also redirect questions that aren’t within the purview of a federal legislator to a better source for help. On Frelinghuysen’s most recent call, one of the 16 questions he took was about drivers without handicap tags parking in the handicap spaces at a Walmart, while another was from a man who objected to having to pay a convenience fee to use the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission’s online services and a third was about New Jersey property taxes. That’s talk time that could have been used for federal issues instead.

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The second is clear ground rules about how the meeting will take place, for both the legislator and the participants. Finally, Neblo urges legislators to invite a broad sample of constituents, whether that is through new technology or an old-fashioned letter in the mail, since legislators can send mail for free. “Do affirmative outreach to people who don’t have a dog in the fight, and who might not be in one party or the other,” he says. “They are the persuadable constituents.”

Neblo notes that it is not always easy legislators to give up control of the meetings, but he is adamant that it creates a greater climate of trust. “When constituents think it is a an infomercial,” he says, “they are in a defensive posture.”

That was where several of Frelinghuysen’s constituents were after his most recent call. (Frelinghuysen didn’t use a moderator, didn’t announce ground rules and, while he gave out the call date in his weekly email, he did not mention it on his website, Facebook page or Twitter account.) Members of the Facebook page for NJ11th for Change ruminated after the call about why they weren’t chosen to ask a question: Many wanted to talk about Frelinghuysen’s stance against the Affordable Care Act. (He did take three ACA questions and another two on veterans’ health care.) One noted that none of the callers chosen to have a question answered were from majority Democrat towns, while several others said that they were disconnected during the call or after it ended, even though Frelinghuysen told listeners that if they stayed on the line their questions would be answered.

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New Jersey’s senators, Cory Booker and Bob Menendez have also held virtual town halls. On Sunday, July 9, Booker held one specifically focused on health care, which is something that Neblo recommends. Constituents like single-topic meetings, he says, because “they can really dig in and get beyond sound bites.” Neblo, who has worked for both Republican and Democrat legislators on virtual town halls, notes that some legislators have even had non-partisan briefing books prepared for participants in the specialized calls to facilitate a more thoughtful dialogue.

In virtual town halls, as in in-person meetings, not everything goes as planned. The Booker town hall suffered from poor call quality and a moderator who was not a native speaker of English who kept calling the senator “BOO-ker”. There were so many people trying to ask questions that it swamped the moderator’s call organizing system, leaving Booker with only two calls to answer. (Booker and Menendez, both Democrats, also held a joint virtual town hall with Working Families on health care in July.)

Some political entities are moving to use technology in other ways to interact with constituents. Aspen, Colo. has put up a “community voice” website that solicits resident input on several specific topics, from mundane code updates to a climate action plan. Aspen’s government can share related research, run surveys on each, and get feedback over days or weeks.

“One of the really big opportunities is to move away from having people show up at a certain time for a meeting,” says Matt Crozier, CEO of Bang The Table, the Boulder, Colo. company that designed the Aspen site. “Go to the community early, get their ideas on how to solve the problem. I think people will be surprised at the incredibly positive stuff that comes out.”

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