Dead Letter

Writing your lawmaker? Save that stamp.

Even in this electronic age, many advocacy groups still advise supporters to send hand-writtenletters to members of Congress. "It really makes an impact, especially in a time when we're buried in email," says one organization on its website. "A handwritten letter gives a personal touch and shows effort on the part of the writer," advises another.

But does the extra work (and cost) really make a difference? In both 2005 and 2010, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Congressional Management Foundation asked senior managers and mail staffers on the Hill about the influence of snail mail versus email. In 2005, in answer to the question, "If your Member/Senator has not already arrived at a firm decision on an issue, how much influence might the following advocacy strategies directed to the Washington office have on his/her decision?" 44 percent of respondents said individualized postal letters had a lot of influence, and 52 percent said they had some; 34 percent said individualized emails had a lot of influence, while 60 percent said they had some. In other words, the two types of correspondence were almost equally likely to have some impact, but the postal letters were far more likely to have a lot of juice with legislators. Form letters and form emails were both deemed to have significantly less power than individualized notes of either kind.

(Peter Bell)By 2010, CMF found, the perceived influence of both types of correspondence had waned, but the disparity between the two had also leveled out: 20 percent of managers and mail staffers who were asked the same question in 2005 said that individualized postal letters had a lot of influence, and 70 percent said they had some, while 19 percent said individualized email messages had a lot of influence, and 69 percent said they had some. Both kinds of correspondence were still rated as far more influential than form letters or form emails, which staffers viewed as comparable to each other.

Beyond the increased use and acceptance of email in general, there are a number of reasons the influence of email seems to have reached parity with postal mail on the Hill. First, letters "don't really even come in anymore," explains one House Democratic staffer. In the wake of the anthrax attacks on Capitol Hill in 2001, the entire mail system was revamped. The content of all paper mail sent to Congress is now entered into computers at an outside facility. The actual letters are no longer delivered. So a letter a constituent handwrites on monogrammed stationery arrives electronically, just as an email would. "They all come in the same way," the staffer says.

Second, if writing a traditional letter is meant to signal the sender's level of engagement with or commitment to an issue, congressional offices now have other ways to assess those things, staffers say. For example, offices have correspondence-management software that can distill an email's essential message, or tell a form letter from a personal letter based on how much it varies from other missives of its kind.

In theory, this allows offices to weight personal messages, no matter how they are sent, more heavily than form messages. But do they? "I'd like to think so, but by the time they get to the member, you say that there were 45 people opposing immigration. It didn't matter if they were form letters," says one House Republican aide. "So I think it matters more to us at the [staff] level. But in reality, by the time it gets to [the member], I think that intent is lost."

The aide adds that, generally speaking, a flood of correspondence, of whatever type, will put an issue on the boss's radar — provided that the messages are coming from constituents. ("Because, I mean if we get tons of form letters from out of the district, we don't really concern ourselves with that as much," the aide says.)

Another House Democratic staffer agrees, saying batches of form letters often come in "at the same time as we're getting a bunch of phone calls or a bunch of personal stuff," so they don't even bother to distinguish between them. They know what they need to know: that whatever people are contacting the office about is obviously "a big issue."

There is at least one way to make that personal letter count, however: Get it past the gatekeepers. Letters that are "particularly poignant" are "definitely set aside" for the boss, says the first House Democratic staffer. And those can have a different kind of impact on decision-making. Letters that tell a personal story "certainly stick with him," the staffer says.