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Getting your voices heard

Constituents try a lot of methods to make sure their elected leaders hear their opinions

POSTED: April 27, 2008 5:01 a.m.
Robin Michener Nathan/The Times

Julie Reagan, who works in Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle's office, holds the stack of letters and postcard that have come in about just one issue: Grady Hospital.

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From the state Capitol in Atlanta to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, the mailbag is much lighter than it was a few years ago. The amount of correspondence hasn't changed. Its delivery method has.

Sitting at his desk, state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, will get 150 e-mails on a typical day.
Some are thoughtful notes written from his constituents in the 26th district. Many are "blast" e-mails sent by various special interest groups.

While on the House floor, Rogers is likely to get a note from a House page informing him that one of his constituents would like to see him in the hallway outside the House chamber. But for the most part, the effort to persuade his vote will come by phone or e-mail.

The effort to influence legislation by the public is undergoing a change. When Rogers first went to the House, he might receive 25 or 30 letters on an average day. Now, the number of letters sent through the postal system is just two or three.

Rogers responds to all of his correspondence from Hall County, but often brushes the out-of-district communications aside. "You tend to look at a letter a little bit stronger," Rogers said. "If you get the same e-mail 200 times, it's not the priority that a personal note about an issue is."

In the office of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, the volume of feedback is not always as high as it is during the session. "On average, the lieutenant governor's office receives about 50 e-mails a day, 25 calls and 10 letters," said Jailene Hunter, a spokeswoman for Cagle. "We respond to each and everyone we hear from and count it a privilege to communicate with so many Georgians on a daily basis."

There are times when the communication comes at a much higher volume. Julie Reagan, the constituent services coordinator for Cagle's office, has a stack of several hundred large postcards all concerning Grady Hospital. She plans to respond to each of them.

Phil Tucker, who heads the House post office at the Capitol, said that when lawmakers are in session, his office will handle 2,000 to 3,000 pieces of mail each day. In addition, the office delivers gifts, such as the chicken boxes provided by the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, and invitations to luncheons and receptions during the session.

Tucker said he can tell when hot issues are being debated. "We'll get thousands of preformed cards about an issue," Tucker said.

In Washington, the volume remains high, but the greatest percentage of contact is electronic. In 2007, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., received more than 500,000 letters and e-mails. More than 95 percent were e-mails. In Chambliss' office, an e-mail gets an e-mail response, and a letter will get a letter from the senator.

For U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, the volume of mailed letters changed dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001. Prior to that date, the congressman would receive 500 written letters in his Washington office on an average day.

"When 9/11 unfortunately happened and the House had to revisit its mail guidelines due to the anthrax scare, postal mail started transforming itself into electronic mail," said Chris Riley, Deal's chief of staff. "We're still getting 500 to 700 correspondences a day from constituents."

But that number can spike dramatically when issues are in the news. One example was last year when an immigration bill was proposed in the Senate. While the matter never reached the House, Deal's mail volume climbed immediately.

Riley said that when President Clinton proposed his first budget in 1993 with a record tax increase, he remembers an avalanche of written mail in the era before e-mail.

He said one of the greatest costs of correspondence in the office today is replacing the toner in the fax machine, which often receives blast faxes from out-of-state special-interest groups. Deal does not respond to bulk messages from outside the district.

His office, too gets a quantity of bulk postcards, some bearing the names of constituents.

"Unfortunately, we'll receive 15,000 identical postcards where someone lifted a name and sent it in under the auspices of that person," Riley said. "The handwritten or typed and signed letter that says, ‘Dear Congressman Deal' takes a higher priority than a computer-manipulated and duplicated postcard."
Anyone planning to write federal lawmakers in Washington should allow plenty of time. A typical letter sent to Capitol Hill will take two weeks to go through the congressional mail security system. If you're seeking a face-to-face visit with a lawmaker, your chances are good.

At the state Capitol, constituents can visit the page desk of the House or Senate and request their lawmakers to come to the hall and speak with them. Occasionally, when a floor debate is under way or a vote is being taken, a lawmaker may have to delay the meeting. In addition, members of the General Assembly have private offices either in the Capitol or the Coverdell Legislative Office Building across the street.

In Washington, Deal makes every effort to meet with constituents who come to his office. Riley said that his obligations on the House floor or in committees sometimes may make that a very brief visit.
Deal also sets aside time for appointments at his district offices in Gainesville, Dalton and LaFayette when the House in not in session.



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