Popularity of ‘tele-town halls’ is on the rise, but some voters may not feel the connection

In practice, the telephone town hall is the perfect tool for the lawmaker short on time: Thousands of constituents are just a phone call away, they can contribute their thoughts with the touch of a button, and confrontation is kept comfortably at arm’s length.

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As congressional approval ratings remain low and voters around the country grow more anxious about hot-button issues such as the war in Iraq and immigration reform, the option of reaching for the phone rather than approaching a podium becomes increasingly attractive.

“Telephone town halls are much more pleasant, efficient and effective,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “They [lawmakers] love them — they can get thousands of people potentially participating … it’s a great way to make a personal connection.”

However, Sabato said, this useful tool also further removes the member from his or her constituency.

“It is one more step back from the people … real emotions, from real people,” said Sabato. “They already have 18 to 20 staff members as a cordon around them and everyone knows that mail is rarely seen by [a member of Congress].”

During a recent town hall, Rep. Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.) confirmed a growing preference for this medium, citing a recent study in a local newspaper suggesting that many lawmakers opt to have dial-in dialogues.

“Ninety percent of Congress don’t have town hall meetings, they are going to these tele-town halls,” he told the group assembled at the meeting. “In fact, I told three of my colleagues before we adjourned last Saturday night I was having town meetings, and they said, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Ramstad stressed his preference for the face-to-face interaction so that people can feel like they are truly part of a representative democracy.

Rep. Steve Rothman (D-N.J.) is no stranger to town halls, holding 13 over the August recess. He said the members he has spoken to have mixed feelings about which forum is better for conversing with constituents.

“To me, the Internet, teleconferencing and in person are all part of the same effort to be accessible to constituents,” he said.
Herb Asher, Ohio State University professor emeritus of political science, said the tele-town hall was unlikely to replace person-to-politician interaction.

“It would open them up to a lot of criticism,” he said. “One might argue that at least on the teleconference call, you are talking to a person rather than sitting at a computer.”

The prospect of activists and disruptive individuals has also prompted some members to hold the off-site calls.

“Town halls have become political theater,” said Mike Shields, a spokesman for Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.), adding that his boss makes it a point to introduce himself to protesters and speak to them when the opportunity presents itself. “Interest groups on the right and left can hijack town hall meetings and turn them into shouting matches.”

Such exchanges can turn off voters who simply wanted to attend for information purposes or to ask their own questions, he said.

Rep. Jim Moran (D-Va.) uses the technology as a supplement to traditional constituent outreach, said spokesman Austin Durrer.

“The beauty of the technology is that you are connecting with a larger pool of constituents, many of whom might never take the time to attend a regular town hall in person,” Durrer added.

According to House Democratic Caucus spokesman Nick Papas, Democrats held more than 200 town hall-like forums and meetings over the recess, not including hundreds of other public appearances.

If the voter deems it acceptable, the tele-town halls could end up more common than not, Sabato said.

“At the end of the day, it’s really up to the press and the public,” he said. “If we don’t care, then they are not going to.”