Scotch tape, snail mail, and political communication

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Most of us probably found in our mailboxes this week a legislative survey from our state representatives. The plain looking survey arrives as a brochure-size trifold on plain white paper marked “Legislative Survey Enclosed,” with an upper left corner black-and-white photo of my State Rep. Thick black photo border lines remind me of obituary photos on Mass cards.

I remember in the early 1990s, as a legislative aide (LA), designing legislative surveys. Legislative aides worked from two long lists compiled by caucus members for which the aides were employed. There are four caucuses, one each for the Maine Senate majority and minority; one each for the Maine House of Representatives majority and minority.

One list included the caucus’ successful bills (ideas) — bills that became law. The second list held a number of suggested questions to ask constituents. Caucus members (legislators) were asked to pick their favorite successful bills, and questions to ask constituents, and those picks were used in their survey.

The cynical view of a legislative survey? It’s just free advertising for legislators. The optimistic view sees legislative surveys as means for legislators to learn how constituents feel on certain issues.

Assuming legislators have an optimistic view, I am surprised this current legislative survey instructs me — and all constituents — to complete and return our surveys by “Refold[ing the Survey] with return address facing out, tape closed and affix first class postage.”

That’s how we completed and returned legislative surveys twenty-plus years ago. In 2018 does, “tape closed and affix first class postage stamp,” make you think your legislator is serious about hearing from you?

How about an online or email survey as constituent options?

During my LA years, the rate of return on completed surveys was 1-3 percent. Each State Representative has about 8,800 constituents. Average best case scenario is 264 constituents complete/return the paper survey.

What can legislators learn from 3 percent of their constituents answering six questions? Can legislators learn enough to decide their votes on issues? I hope not. I would think the best any 3-percent’s answers can do is to reinforce how any legislator has decided on an issue.

Here’s question three on my legislative survey:

“On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being ‘most concerned,’ how concerned are you about the opioid crisis in Maine?”

Question six asks:

“What single issue is most important for you to see the Maine Legislature take action on?” The question is followed by eight issues from which to choose, i.e. Education, Healthcare and Taxes/Spending.

But questions and their answers are so vague they’re meaningless. If I answer Q3 by answering “10” — what about Maine’s opioid crisis am I so concerned? Is it that Maine government is doing too much in response to the opioid crisis? Too little? Is it that I think Maine government is responding the wrong way?

In the same vein, if I answer I want the Maine Legislature to “take action on” education — how so? By ceding more control of education to locals? By having state government take total control over education?

The way these and other questions are written, I can’t know what the legislator is really asking, and the legislator can’t really understand my answers.

Years ago we crossed the divide, so now the workings and language of government is, for many people, foreign. Legislators, staffers, party people — even political news media people — assume lay people understand government and lawmaking more than they do.

So instead of politicos pretending they and we are communicating on lawmaking matters, legislators should consider using personal appearances, and new media, as opportunities for making sure they and their constituents are speaking the same language, using face-to-face, heart-to-heart communication.

Scott K. Fish has served as a communications staffer for Maine Senate and House Republican caucuses, and was communications director for Senate President Kevin Raye. He founded and edited AsMaineGoes.com and served as director of communications/public relations for Maine’s Department of Corrections until 2015. He is now using his communications skills to serve clients in the private sector.

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