Until now, if a person wanted to contact Congress, a phone call, a hand-written letter or even a fax was a lot easier to rely on than email.
The Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that focuses on open government, has eased that electronic burden, creating a way for people to directly email Congress without having to go through the captchas, zip code requirements and broken forms that often stonewall efforts to get in touch with their elected representatives.
Built with the help of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Participatory Politics Foundation, email addresses listed on Sunlight’s OpenCongress platform can now contact individual lawmakers, like Sen.Reid@opencongress.org or Rep.Boehner@opencongress.org, or both a person’s senators and representatives by sending a message to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We think that it’s inappropriate to erect technical barriers around such an essential democratic mechanism,” Sunlight Foundation Director Tom Lee wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “Congress itself is addressing the problem. That effort has just entered its second decade, and people are feeling optimistic that a launch to a closed set of partners might be coming soon. But we weren’t content to wait.”
The email link works by gathering some additional location information from users so Sunlight’s code can fill out those cumbersome email forms. After that initial email, all users will have to do is “click a link that says, ‘Yes, I meant to send that email.'”
For the time being, emails can only be sent by people inside a particular representative’s district. “A lot of people dislike this. We do, too,” Lee wrote. “But the unfortunate truth is that Congress typically won’t bother reading messages for non-constituents — that’s why those zip code requirements exist in the first place. Until that changes, we don’t want our users to waste their time.”
Sunlight has published the project’s data on GitHub, but warned that what’s available is not a carbon copy of what the foundation did with OpenCongress.
“This is by design: one thing we don’t want to do is empower people to spam Congress,” Lee wrote in the comments section of the blog post. “While we remain committed to developing in the open, this is not a project that we are likely to package into a maximally simple-to-use tool. The risk of it being abused is too high, in my opinion.”
Lee says the email feature is meant to be simple, so the public has as many ways as possible to connect with lawmakers.
“We think that unbreaking how Congress connects to the Internet is important,” Lee wrote. “You should be able to send a call to action in a tweet, easily foward a listserv message to your representative and interact with your government using the tools you use to interact with everyone else.”