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State Legislators' Perceptions of the Use of E-mail in Constituent Communication
Mary Lou Sheffer
Louisiana State University
- Haves and Have-Nots
- Politics and the Internet
- Studies on the Impact of the Internet on Politics
- Research Questions
- About the Author
AbstractThis study measured and compared the attitudes and perceptions of state legislators toward e-mail on the basis of age and gender. Results showed that although e-mail is thought to be an effective means of communicating politically by legislators, it is not being implemented as a political tool. A comparison based on gender revealed that more male legislators have an active political e-mail account (95%) than female legislators (71%). The survey also revealed a significant difference with respect to the age of legislators and the political use of e-mail.
IntroductionThe number of households connected to the Internet is increasing at an astonishing rate. According to a governmental survey conducted in September 2001, approximately 143 million people (or 54% of the population) in the U.S. were connected to the Internet, and the rate of growth is two million new Internet users per month (A Nation Online, 2002).
As early as 1999 researchers were attributing this online growth to increased reliability and ease of access, especially with respect to e-mail (Romm, 1999, p.7). Of all the applications available through the Internet, e-mail has emerged as the most popular. Nearly 80% of all Internet activity is attributed to e-mail ("Falling through the net: Toward Digital Inclusion", October, 2000).
It is not just constituents who benefit from the Net; politicians have found e-mail to be an effective means of communicating with constituents. "House and Senate members who used to rely on the postal service and news media to reach constituents are increasingly using e-mail to take their message directly to voters" (Tech Report, 1999, p. 1). As early as March, 1996, Congress saw the potential political use of the Internet and established the Congressional Internet Caucus to investigate it (Owen, Davis & Strickler, 1999). It was the decision of this caucus that it would be in the best interests of members of Congress to use the Net to communicate with their constituents (Owen et. al, 1999, p. 14). But are legislators relying on e-mail to communicate with constituents on the state level? If so, could this new instant, low-cost channel of communication between the constituents and the legislators have an effect on political agenda-setting?. The impact of political e-mail, and its use by state legislators, is the focus of the study reported here.
With e-mail, politicians and constituents can communicate as individuals rather than at an aggregate level. Neuman (1991) noted that there is evidence that computer networks help to empower citizens and encourage discussion between citizens and leaders. Again, this could influence the origin of agenda-setting. Until recently, even agenda-setting studies were based on aggregate data (media coverage, public opinion surveys) that often overlooked the individual and personal network levels of analysis (Brousius & Weimann, 1998, p. 562).
Is e-mail the link that will bring politicians and the Internet together? Some believe e-mail, used properly, can be employed to communicate at an individual level and can be used as a means to gather and mobilize the masses. Jessie Ventura's use of e-mail to organize thousands of volunteers during the 1998 Minnesota governor's race (Taha, 1999) is a prime example. In short, a real dialogue between the leaders and the electorate is now technologically possible.
Haves and Have-Nots
Any discussion of the Internet's impact on mass democracy would not be complete without confronting some of the known barriers, most conspicuously the "Digital Divide," which separates those who have access to computers and the Internet from those who do not. According to a government report, "Falling Through the Net II" (1999), that division can be attributed to any combination of the following factors: income, education level, race, household type and geography. For example, those with a college education are nearly ten times as likely to own a computer as those with only a high school education.
Although a digital divide does exist, there are some indications that it might be decreasing. Government research has shown that "in every income bracket, at every level of education, in every age group, for people of every race and among both men and women, many more people use computers and the Internet now than did so in the recent past" (A Nation Online, February 2002). According to research conducted by the Pew Center, the percentage of Americans accessing the Internet surged from 14% in 1995 to 41% in November 1998 (Kamarck & Nye, p. 75). A recent government survey revealed that the percent of Americans online increased from 46.7% in August 2000 to 56.7% in September 2001 (A Nation Online, 2002). In the last few years alone the penetration rate of homes connected to the Internet has risen from only five U.S. cities at a 50% rate (Scarborough, 1999) to all but six states with more than 50% of their population connected to the Net by 2002 (A Nation Online, 2002). Another recent finding was that men and women now have with virtually identical rates of Internet use, 52.9% and 53.8% respectively (A Nation Online, 2002). However, when this aggregate data is sorted by age, "women ranging from age 20 to age 50 are more likely to use the Internet than men" (A Nation Online, 2002). Overall, the greatest increase in Internet users is among children and teenagers. This data may indicate that if the digital gap is narrowing, one result might be that in the future, legislators will receive more e-mail than postal mail.
These divisions, however, are not new to our political structure. According to researchers, these are some of the same factors that determine how active a citizen is politically. "Increase in socioeconomic status (SES) among the electorate—education, occupation, and income—is one key to improved voter turnout" (Winders, 1999, p. 834). The access to information afforded by the Internet does not cause these divisions, but rather seems to magnify them. The characteristics that separate the 'haves' from the 'have nots' are typically the same characteristics that separate a politically active citizen from a non-participating citizen.
It is the belief of some early Internet researchers, however, that the Digital Divide will only widen if governmental agencies and actors become more present on the Net. James Katz argues that "the information-poor will become more impoverished because government bodies, community organizations, and corporations are displacing resources from their ordinary channels of communication onto the Internet" ("Society's Digital Divide", 1997, p. 1). Yet others believe that the Internet will give constituents a new, stronger medium through which to become active participants in the political process. "The Internet makes it possible for citizens to become much more directly involved in the public policy process than ever before" (Carter, 1999, p. 467).
The issue of whether or not legislators are using e-mail might be usefully examined through the framework of Rogers' diffusion of innovation theory. Rogers notes that younger people are more likely to implement and accept new technologies than older ones. "The general evidence seems to indicate that innovators are younger than laggards" (Rogers, 1962, p. 174). If you gauge Rogers' laggards simply by age, then legislators who are in their 40s are more likely to implement e-mail than older legislators are. Other researchers tend to agree with Rogers. In fact, some believe new technology will lure younger generations to become more politically active. "The new media will attract groups who might otherwise be uninvolved in conventional forms of activism, especially the younger generation who have low levels of voting turnout and civic engagement" (Norris, 1999, p. 14).
The concept of agenda-setting is not a new one. The root of its definition is grounded in the principle that by repeated coverage "over time the priorities of the press become the priorities of the public" (Weaver, Garber, McCombs & Eyal, 1981, p. 4). This is particularly true when dealing with politics. Early research in the area supported a strong relationship between what the media reports and what concerns the public and politicians (Weaver et al., 1981, p. 76).
Perhaps Cohen (1963, p. 13) described agenda-setting best: "the mass media may not be successful in telling us what to think, but they are stunningly successful in telling us what to think about." The study of agenda-setting can be broken down into three processes: media agenda-setting, public agenda-setting, and policy agenda-setting (Rogers & Dearing, 1988). In the public agenda-setting process the people decide which issues are important. The media agenda-setting process is as described above. In the policy agenda-setting process, governmental bodies decide what issues are most important (Rogers, 1994) and set their agendas accordingly. As in other agenda-setting theories, all three processes seem to originate with the media. Again, according to Rogers, "it is usually assumed that the agenda-setting process consists of the media agenda's influencing the public agenda, which in turn influences the policy agenda" (1994, p. 239). However, research by Adams and others has determined that factors such as ideological makeup of the legislature (Adams, 1996) and the role of committees (Francis, 1985) play an integral part in an individual politician's decision-making.
Some work has been done on gender and its effect on agenda-setting. Both Reingold (1992) and Thomas (1991) reported that women tend to support issues that affect women, the family and children more than men do. Perhaps female legislators have a distinctive political agenda and only the media issues that relate to this agenda influence them. This might also hold true in regard to constituent communication.
Lang and Lang argue that the President, politicians, press and the public all interact within a cycle, which they refer to as agenda-building (Wanta & Foote, 1994, p. 439). The media choose to cover an event, causing public attention which leads in turn to a response by an elite official, whose response is covered by the media. It is believed, however, that the more control and knowledge constituents have the more involved they will become, thus by-passing the media as gatekeeper. According to Wanta and Wu (1992), if this information is obtained through interpersonal communication, it becomes a competing force with the media message, thus interfering with the media agenda-setting effects. In fact, prior research (Mutz, 1989; Weaver, Zhu, & Willnat, 1992) has identified interpersonal communication rather than media influence as the "bridging function" between respondents' perceptions of personal problems and societal issues. Through the Internet and e-mail, constituents are able to send and receive information to and from their legislators with greater ease, perhaps even on a more personal level.
Politics and the Internet
"The Internet is beginning to gain respect as a viable tool of communication. This is not a fad, but a highly effective way to communicate with the masses. In fact, it has the potential to become the most effective medium for reaching voters because of its unique interactive qualities" (Connell, 1998, p. 48). It is not just constituents who can benefit from the Net; politicians have also found another means of communicating with them. "House and Senate members who used to rely on the postal service and news media to reach constituents are increasingly using e-mail to take their message directly to voters" (Tech Report, 1999, p. 1). More and more politicians are becoming pro-active through the Internet. This trend is not limited to the federal level. "State and congressional candidates are using the World Wide Web as a cost-effective way of reaching millions of voters" (Forstel, 1998, p. 232). Even as early as the 1996 general election, "Fifty of 68 Senatorial candidates had home pages" (Klotz, 1997, p. 482). Included in most of these home pages were e-mail addresses. In this same election, constituents also became politically active via the Internet. "More than a quarter of all voters were on line; 10 percent made their voting decisions based upon information collected primarily from the Internet" (Connell, 1998, p. 48). It is believed that the communication gap between constituents and politicians will lessen the more politicians become active on the Net.
In some instances, constituent feedback via e-mail is already becoming a tool in political communication. Whether it is truly effective remains to be seen. For example, it has been claimed that one political campaign site, moveon.org, drew some 450,000 signatures calling on Congress to censure President Clinton and move on. Moveon.org is not merely a web page, but rather it is a politically active organization that encourages constituents to use the Internet to become more involved in politics. In other words, politically active organizations are promoting the use of e-mail as a means to voice personal opinions to politicians.
Studies on the Impact of the Internet on Politics
In recent years a number of studies of the impact of the Internet on politics have been undertaken. Richard E. Sclove, founder of Loka Institute, a public-affairs research organization, is investigating whether or not the Internet will erode participatory democracy. Sclove believes that the Internet fosters the illusion, "that [it] makes people feel as if they're participating when in reality they're not" ("Online Forum", 1996. p.1). This is the same illusion that some critics charge television with creating.
However, there are opposing views. Corman (1994) studied how people responded to a Gopher site offered by then-U.S. Representative Sam Coppersmith. Even though enhanced participation was the least often cited value, Corman's data showed 37% of the people surveyed valued the Gopher site because it allowed them to monitor what their representative was doing (as cited in Guernsey, 1996). These early Internet applications became a way of holding the politicians more accountable. Corman concluded that the Internet will, indeed, help people become more connected to the way government works. Web sites have now replaced Gopher sites, allowing users to become more active and providing more tools for their use. Among Internet applications, the greatest interactivity is found in e-mail. Stromer-Galley investigated the ability of politicians to interact with constituents via political web pages during an election. She found a correlation between proximity to Election Day and the amount of e-mail received per day. Gubernatorial candidate Ellen Sauerbrey's web page "reported receiving 600-700 e-mail messages a day in the last days of the Maryland campaign. Prior to that, they were receiving approximately 200 a day" (Stromer-Galley, 2000, p. 123).
Hurwitz and Mallery (cited in Guernsey, 1999) conducted studies on who uses the Internet to collect political information. As a result of their research, they believe the Internet will indeed impact politics: "the Internet will change the shape of politics, as long as it is used as a two-way medium, through which people write electronic-mail messages to their legislators, for example, and receive meaningful responses" (Guernsey, 1999, p. A32).
In sum, this literature review suggests that the Internet undeniably possess the capacity to make an impact on politics and the agenda-setting process as a whole. It is the Internet's interactive capability, principally e-mail, which will allow constituents to have a stronger voice in the political arena, potentially changing the role of agenda-setting.
Due to the Internet's relative newness, little research has been conducted as to what affect, if any, it will have on agenda-setting. This leads to many questions: will constituents use e-mail as a form of communicating with politicians and vice versa? Does age or gender play a role in the use of e-mail as a political tool of communication? This study attempts to answer such questions and to clarify the role of the Internet via e-mail in political agenda-setting.
Together, the literature suggests the following hypotheses and research questions:
H1: Legislators will report agenda-shifting in response to constitutent e-mail.
RQ1: Are younger legislators more likely to implement e-mail as a political tool of communication than older legislators?
RQ2: Do politicians believe e-mail is an effective means of communicating with constituents?
RQ3: Are male legislators more likely to implement e-mail as a political tool of communication than female legislators?
MethodIn order to answer these questions a survey measuring the attitudes and responses of state legislators was conducted. Data were collected from representatives in the state of Illinois. There are 59 Senators and 118 Representatives in the state of Illinois, bringing the total sample population to 177. To ensure a high response rate, the survey was distributed while the legislature was in full session. The survey was distributed, by hand, on both the House and the Senate floor, and collected later the same day. The legislators, however, did have the option of returning the surveys by mail or hand delivering them to pre-selected individuals. The surveys were then distributed on February 22 (House of Representatives), and on February 23 (Senate), 2000. Five of the representatives were absent on the day of data collection. One hundred seventy-two surveys were distributed, 115 in the House and 57 in the Senate. A total of 62 surveys were received from the house and 27 from the Senate, a response rate of 51%. Two of the 27 Senate surveys and two of the 62 House surveys were not fully completed and were not included in the political party demographic breakdown. The researcher's freedom to remain on the House floor brought an unexpected bonus of informal personal interviews to the data collection process, and served to enrich interpretation of the survey responses. Several Representatives expressed their beliefs and perspectives verbally about the use of e-mail as a political tool.
ResultsThe first hypothesis was that legislators would report that they shifted their agendas in response to constituent e-mail. Likelihood of agenda-shifting was measured with a four-point scale where 4 equaled strongly agree, 3 agree, 2 disagree, and 1 strongly disagree. The mean score was 1.92. This lukewarm support for agenda-shifting in response to constituent e-mail could be explained by social desirability factors inherent in the question content, but may also have had to do with the relative importance legislators placed on the various means of communication with constituents. Although the legislators tended to agree that constituent feedback is important (mean = 2.71 on a four point scale where 4 = strongly agree), a majority of the legislators (61%) preferred face-to-face feedback, followed by telephone (16%) and postal mail (15%). Legislators showed little preference for e-mail, with only 7% selecting it as their first choice. Thus it seems unlikely that receipt of e-mail from constitutents would produce much agenda-shifting.
Legislators were also asked to estimate the amount of e-mail received per day compared to the amount of surface mail received. There was a significant difference, as seen in Table 1, indicating a slighly heavier volume of postal mail from constituents as opposed to e-mail. Although a number of legislators (N=22) received a substantial amount of postal mail daily (26 or more pieces a day), only a few (N = 3) received 26 or more e-mail messages daily.
Table 1. Number of legislators receiving postal mail daily versus e-mail daily.
Volume Type of Mail 1-10 pieces 11-25 26-50 51 and up Postal 38 36 13 9 70 5 3 0 Chi-square = 41.52* df=3 (Postal n=91) (e-mail n=84)
*p < 0.001
In RQ1, the question of age and its effect on the implementation of e-mail as a political tool of communication was raised. When directly asked if they were using e-mail as a political tool of communication within their district, the legislators' responses were similar, regardless of age, with younger legislators (49 years of age or less) (M = 2.39) being slightly more likely to be using e-mail than older (50 and over) legislators (M = 2.20). Younger legislators as a whole, however, were more inclined to have a political e-mail account. In fact, 100% of younger legislators surveyed indicated that they had an active political e-mail account compared to 80% of the older legislators (c2 = 8.78, df=3, p <.05). . Though both age groups reportedly used e-mail privately (M = 2.81 for younger legislator and 2.71 for older legislator), they claimed to be reluctant to use it politically (t =.423, df=79, p <.337). At the time of this study, only 7% of state legislators ranked e-mail as being the most influential form of political communication. However, both age groups were more or less equally likely to agree (87% of the younger and 88% of the older legislators, c2 =.274, df=3, p <.10) that in the future they would become more reliant on e-mail as a political tool.
With respect to RQ2, legislators were asked whether or not they find e-mail to be effective as a political tool. The mean response was 2.70 on a four-point scale, where 4 equalled strongly agree. To further examine this question, a comparison was made between legislators who were already active on the Internet and those who were not. The legislators were classified into four groups: e-mail accounts for three years or longer, e-mail accounts for one to two years, e-mail accounts for less than a year, and no e-mail accounts. If e-mail were thought to be effective by legislators, then it could be inferred that legislators who have had an e-mail account the longest would implement its use as a political tool more frequently than legislators who have had an e-mail account for less than a year (c2=11.186, df=3, p <.025). As seen in Table 2, this notion is supported.
E-mail as a Political Tool House Senate Agree Disagree Agree Disagree 3 Years or More 71% 29% 58% 42% 1 to 2 Years 54% 46% 70% 30% Less than a Year 33% 67% 33% 67% No E-mail 0% 100% 0% 100% N = 72
Table 2. Comparison of the length of time a legislator maintained an e-mail account with the implementation of its use as a political tool of communication. Values represent percentage of legislators responding.
Although the majority of legislators find e-mail to be effective and have an active e-mail address (89%) and a web page (56%), legislators are not integrating e-mail as a political tool of communication.
The final research question had to do with determining whether men or women were more likely to implement e-mail as a political tool of communication. Although the differences were slight and not significant, female legislators voiced a greater disdain toward e-mail's inability to display emotions. One female legislator wrote, "With e-mail you can't get the story behind the question or request. Sometimes it's the story, not the answer." One male legislator argued that "E-mail is not a tabulator. I'm looking for the good argument." Male legislators (M = 3.17) were more likely to agree that in the future they would become more reliant on e-mail as a tool than were female legislators (M = 2.92) (t=-2.085, df = 81, p<.02).(See Table 3)
E-mail as a Political Tool Future Reliance on E-mail Female Male Female Male Strongly Agree 8% 10% 15% 26% Agree 31% 33% 62% 67% Disagree 38% 40% 23% 7% Strongly Disagree 23% 17% 0% 0% N = 55
Table 3. Comparison of e-mail as an important political tool within a legislative district and future reliance upon and current importance of e-mail as a political tool of communication. Values represent percentage of legislators responding.
Respondents were asked questions about the timeliness of e-mail and message delivery. Both female and male legislators were comparatively noncommital with respect to whether or not e-mail is sent directly to their constituents (M = 2.46, M = 2.30, respectively, t=.413, df=83, p <.34).
Although most of the responses were similar, there were a few differences between men and women that are worthy of mention. The first lies in the existence of a political e-mail account. At the time of the survey, 95% of male legislators responding indicated they had a political e-mail account, compared to 71% of female legislators ( c2 =6.843, p <.05.) Surprisingly, more female legislators than male legislators had established a web page. In fact, slightly fewer than 25% of female legislators did not have a web page, but only about half of the male legislators had a web site (t=.752, df=80, p <.22). Even more surprising was the fact that although male legislators were less likely to have established a web site, the male legislators found web pages to be a more effective means of communicating than did female legislators (M = 2.74 and M= 2.27, respectively, t=-1.884, df=36, p <.034). respectively.
Further breakdowns and comparisons of the data resulted in some rather interesting findings. In regards to H1, when the House was compared with the Senate, the results were similar but the same can not be said for RQ2. When a comparison between the timeliness of e-mail and e-mail's effectiveness was made the Democrats responded more positively than the Republicans, as seen in Table 4 (t=1.33, df=82, p <.09). .
E-mail Timeliness E-mail Effectiveness Democrats 2.60 2.93 Republican 2.30 2.57 N=89 N=91
Table 4. Comparison between Democrats and Republicans of effectiveness and timeliness of e-mail.
Respondents were further sorted into the categories House Democrat, House Republican, Senate Democrat, and Senate Republican, and further discrepancies were revealed. The groups were analyzed by comparing the Senate Democrats' responses to the House Democrats', responses followed by the same comparison between the Senate Republicans and House Republicans. Surprisingly, the Senate respondents were more likely than those from the House to support the use and effectiveness of e-mail (RQ2) (t=1.719, df=82, p <.044).
E-Mail as a Political Tool E-mail's Effectiveness House Democrat 2.13 2.45 (n=20) Senate Democrat 2.70 3.00 (n=10) House Republican 2.22 1.82 (n=45) Senate Republican 2.30 2.61 (n=12)
Table 5. Comparison of the overall use of e-mail as a political tool and effectiveness of e-mail between House Democrats/Republicans and Senate Democrats/Republicans.
DiscussionThis study sought to investigate the effect of constituent e-mail on political communication at a state level. Since the study gauged the effectiveness of e-mail sent by constituents, measurement involved perceptions and attitudes of state legislators. One hypothesis and three research questions were proposed. First, it was hypothesized that legislators will report agenda-shifting in response to constitutent e-mail (H1). Subsidiary research questions were: are legislators 49 years of age and younger more likely to implement e-mail as a political tool of communication than legislators who are 50 years of age and older?(RQ1); do politicians believe e-mail is an effective means of communicating ?(RQ2); and are male legislators more likely to implement e-mail as a political tool of communication than female legislators ?(RQ3).
A possible explanation for the lack of support for H1, that e-mail from consitutents influences legislators' agendas, may reside in the ambiguous place of origin of most e-mail. Through personal interviews, state legislators conveyed that they base their agendas on issues that either happen within their districts or on issues that affect their districts. Constituent feedback that originates from within their districts as opposed to outside their districts was considered extremely important. The ability to distinguish the difference has become a vital part of the communication process. One legislator writes, "e-mail and postal correspondence from constituents living in my district is highly important. Communication from persons outside of my district or who do not indicate an address receive little or no attention."
Legislators expressed a sense of caution about responding to constituent e-mail. That caution presented itself in several forms, including a reluctance to change personal political agendas and a delay in responding to certain e-mails. One representative indicated that constituent e-mail "affects but not always changes my agenda. I consider their opinion." Still another representative stated that "the problem with e-mail is that it takes time to sort out my constituent e-mail from out-of- district (20%) or unidentifiable (80%)." This hesitancy is also felt at the federal level. According to researchers Owen, Davis and Strickler, "the deluge of e-mail comes from nonconstituents, and members of Congress do not want to have to answer mail from large numbers of people outside their district" (1999).
Some of the legislators expressed the opinion that e-mail opens up new avenues of communication that will allow constituents to voice opinions that might otherwise have gone unexpressed. Researchers Wanta and Wu (1992) take this idea one step further in suggesting that the new communication channel of e-mail can effect the agenda-setting process. It is the belief of these researchers that the effects of agenda-setting can be manipulated by interpersonal communication provided that communication deals with issues that receive little coverage in the news media.
It is possible that in a future study H1 would be supported, for several reasons First, at the time of the survey 44% of legislators responding chose constituent feedback as the most important influence in determining their own political agenda, second only to personal belief (51%). Secondly, within the last year, 79% of legislators responding have witnessed an increase in the amount of e-mail they received. More importantly, however, when legislators were asked to predict the importance of e-mail, the majority of them agreed that, in the future, their offices would become more reliant on e-mail as a means of political communication. Taking all three factors into consideration (future dependence on e-mail, increase in the amount of e-mail received and the importance of constituent feedback), it is logical to assume that in the future e-mail will have a greater effect on a legislator's personal political agenda.
The survey indicated that despite the importance of constituent feedback and the overwhelming increase in the amount of e-mails received by legislators, there is no current trend for legislators to report shifting their personal political agendas. Certainly, personal belief plays a significant role in the agenda-setting process, but as indicated in this study, so does the development of new technology. If legislators were able to distinguish the origin of constituent e-mail easily, then constituent e-mail would have a greater impact on a legislator's personal political agenda.
With respect to the impact of legislators' age on use of email as a tool of political communication, the fact that 100% of younger legislators surveyed indicated that they have an active political e-mail account compared to 80% of older legislators is consistent with Rogers' (1962, 1995)theory of the diffusion of innovations, although the fact that the older Senators were considerably more likely to believe that e-mail is an effective political tool seems to run counter to the theory's predictions. And with respect to the characterization of e-mail as a timely means of communication, the older Senators were more supportive by a considerable margin. Further, this current wariness about implementing e-mail politically, according to Rogers' diffusion of innovation theory, could be considered to be the stage in which technology is tested and revised before it is totally accepted by a group.
The low operating cost of e-mail may be a contributing factor to legislators' positive responses with respect to the effectiveness of email as a political tool. According to one researcher, e-mail is an effective political tool because "it enables politicians to deliver communication expeditiously, avoid costly postage, receive timely feedback and rapidly mobilize supporters" (Francisco, 1999, p. 1). This survey seemed to support that assessment. One of the incentives for using e-mail, according to 10% of the legislators responding, is its low cost. A number of the legislators (37%) agreed that e-mail's speed made it the most appealing form of communication, while ease of use was the next most important consideration (31%). Not all legislators, however, found speed to be a benefit. Some legislators noted that they are concerned with an added sense of pressure to respond immediately to e-mail. One representative noted, "This is just one more avenue that I have to stay up with, and it implies a need for me to respond more rapidly. Impossible!" This assumption by legislators is not without foundation. A study by Owen et al. determined that "e-mail writers expect more rapid responses because they know that e-mail can be received quickly and they see no reason why they should not receive a speedy reply" (1999, p. 20). Legislators fear that constituents will feel ignored if they do not respond immediately to e-mail, when in the mind of the legislator the opposite is true. Legislators expressed, through the survey, that their quickness in responding to constituents' questions depended on the nature of the questions and not the form of communication used. Legislators, however, are not taking advantage of both the speed and ease of e-mail. They believe that their responses must contain a thoughtful and carefully thought-out answer to constituents' questions and thus they need time before responding. With e-mail, a simple acknowledgement would not only count as being a response but also allow time for the legislator to gather information and answer constituent questions accurately.
Legislators were also concerned about the amount of e-mail they now receive and could receive in the future. The low cost involved in sending a message via e-mail is a contributing factor to the increase in the volume of e-mails received. Legislators are afraid their staffs will become overburdened. One legislator openly admitted that the potential impact of e-mail as an additional method of corresponding is great and he is concerned with the backlash it may create. "E-mail could be an invaluable tool. We recognize that the additional work load generated primarily from out-of-district sources would dictate at least one more full-time person, if not two." This increase in staff hours or an increase in personal time spent responding to constituents is also a concern at the federal level. According to research conducted by Owen et. al, because of staffing limitations "members don't have the capability to answer the hundreds of new electronic messages that are pouring into their office" (1999, p. 17).
The differences between the sexes and their implementation of e-mail can also be attributed to Rogers' diffusion of innovation theory. Rogers states that due to a lack of competitiveness "girls are less hesitant to compete with boys for access to computers" (1986, p. 179), thus giving males a greater advantage over females. Perhaps this could explain why 29% of female legislators, at the time of the survey, did not have an active political e-mail account compared to only 5% of male legislators. In contrast to this theory, however, is the fact that more female legislators have a web page. Seventy five percent of all female legislators responding had a web page compared to 50% of all male legislators responding. The following fact surfaced and quickly became a conundrum; although male legislators were less likely to have a web page, they were far more likely than female legislators to think web pages were an effective means of communication (70% and 33%, respectively).
According to the findings of the survey, a major deterrent to the implementation of e-mail by female legislators was the perceived ambiguity of e-mail messages, and their inability to express emotion. Female legislators overall seemed to place a greater emphasis on emotions than male legislators. The inability to express emotions, or the impersonal nature of e-mail, might be a contributing factor to why fewer women use e-mail than do men. The fact that female legislators agreed that using e-mail allowed them to communicate in a more timely manner than other forms of communications seemed to be a contradiction. In fact, several female legislators stated that one reason they opposed e-mail was its instantaneity, in other words, its timeliness. These same legislators attributed this opposition to their concerns about spelling errors and/or improper grammar. Legislators revealed that with e-mail, they were responding directly to the sender without staff members' interceding or proofing their messages.
Although the issue of technology "haves and have-nots" has sparked much debate, only one representative expressed a concern that not all constituents have e-mail capability. When asked how effective e-mail is as a political tool of communication, however, this same representative responded in a positive manner.
Legislators seem to be more concerned with becoming organized and better acquainted with e-mail. Legislators noted that after becoming organized they would be able to use e-mail to communicate with the masses. According to researcher Howard Rheingold, "e-mail is the application that has always driven the growth of the Internet; it is a new form of social communication and the building block of many-to-many media" (1999, p.2).
Future studies might concentrate on the feelings and attitudes of constituents with respect to using e-mail as a political tool of communication and as a means of becoming more active politically. Determining the make-up of constituents who communicate politically via e-mail might alter or influence future legislators' responses via e-mail. A demographic breakdown of each legislator's district, including an evaluation of such factors as income and size of district, might lend insight into legislative perceptions and attitudes regarding the effectiveness of e-mail as a political tool.
Like all studies, there are limitations and acceptance of the conclusions offered above should be tempered by a recognition of these limitations. First of all, although the study had a high response rate (51%), it was limited to the state of Illinois. With this in mind, the ability to draw general conclusions regarding other states is minimal at best. The fact that 65% of the total response received came from Republicans could have skewed the results.
The development of the survey was designed to allow legislators to respond fully and completely, but several forms were returned with answers missing. In fact, there were some surveys where entire sections were left blank. This incompleteness of some forms could have affected the outcome of the results.
More importantly, this survey was timely in that it only addressed the attitudes and feelings of legislators during the completion of the survey. With developing and changing technology also comes the possibility for attitude change. Many factors contribute to the acceptance of technology.
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About the AuthorMary Lou Sheffer is a doctoral candidate in the Manship School of Communication, Louisiana State University. Her research focuses on political communication, especially computer-mediated communication, and the future of sports broadcasting. She has worked for the last two months as a media consultant for an Illinois state Representative. In addition to her political experience, she worked for ten years in both television news and production.
Address: 221 Journalism Building, Baton Rouge, LA 70803-7202. Phone (225) 578-9294.
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