Click through this slideshow to learn how to sign up with a service that helps you more easily email your U.S. representative and/or senator.First: This is how is usually works. You look up your congressman's website. Here's U.S. Rep. Fred Upton's; he represents Allegan County.Next, you locate the "contact" link. In Upton's case, it brings out a pull-down menu....and then another menu...Then you enter your zip code. This is because they generally only want to hear from constituents.Then there's the dreaded web form—separate fields for every bit of info, etc. You enter your info and your message, and—finally—you're done. Presumably it generates some kind of email that gets in front of Upton.Something new: here's OpenCongress.org's home page. Here, you can look up information about legislators and keep with what they do. Let's search for Upton; just type it into that rounded white box in the middle.Like so.This brings up a results page. If we had been less specific—say we'd just typed "Upton"—there would be a few entries containing that name and we'd click on Fred's name anyway.This is what Upton's page looks like at OpenCongress.org. Off to the right, you'll notice his email (it's not really his email, but it will function like one shortly).Next step is to send an email to that OpenCongress email address for Upton. Here's what I sent.Once you send it on your way, you'll get a return email from OpenCongress that looks like this. Click on the "Confirm and send my email" button.Aack! Another form! Relax: you'll fill this out once; after this, OpenCongress will use the info in it to plug into Upton's web form so you don't have to do it every time.I'm always leery of providing my address and cell phone number. Here's why they ask for it (the short answer: it's what is asked of you when you want to contact your rep).After you press "Continue," the site will think about it a bit and then present you with this message. You're all set. Now when you send an email to Upton, OpenCongress just sends it on its way; no forms, no fuss.

Basement Beat: Emailing your congressman

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

Have you ever finally gotten ticked off about something a federal legislator has done? Have you ever gotten mad enough that you marched right over to your computer to send them some kind of message?

If you have, you’re familiar with that contact form. You know the one.

Separate fields for your name, your address, and your comments, etc. But no actual email for the congressman. By the time you’re done filling in all the information, the emotion has worn off; you’re

I stumbled onto something recently that can potentially make that process a lot more fluid.

Enter: the Sunlight Foundation and OpenCongress.org.

OpenCongress was founded in 2007 by the Participatory Politics Foundation and operated as a joint project with the Sunlight Foundation until acquired by the Sunlight Foundation in 2013. Sunlight is now the sole operator of OpenCongress.

They’ve set up a system that takes information you provide in advance and auto-fills it into a congressman’s web form. On your end, you just have to send an email. That’s it. They do the rest.

I’ve provided a slideshow above describing the process of contacting Allegan County’s current congressman, U.S. Rep. Fred Upton the usual way. Later, it shows you how to sign up for the service through OpenCongress.org.

It’s quite easy; I set it up in minutes.

OpenCongress.org has this to say: “This may not sound like a big deal, but it's been a long time coming. A lot of people are surprised to learn that Congress doesn't have publicly available email addresses.

“It's the number one feature request that we hear from users of our APIs. Until recently, we didn't have a good response.

“That's because members of Congress typically put their feedback mechanisms behind captchas and zip code requirements. Sometimes these forms break; sometimes their requirements improperly lock out actual constituents. And they always make it harder to email your congressional delegation than it should be.

“This is a real problem. According to the Congressional Management Foundation, 88 percent of Capitol Hill staffers agree that electronic messages from constituents influence their bosses' decisions. We think that it's inappropriate to erect technical barriers around such an essential democratic mechanism.”

Apparently, Congress itself is already working on something like this, but it’s not yet ready—and hasn’t been for a decade.

“So when the Electronic Frontier Foundation approached us about this problem, we were excited to really make some progress. Building on groundwork first done by the Participatory Politics Foundation and more recent work within Sunlight, a network of 150 volunteers collected the data we needed from congressional websites in just two days.

“That information is now on Github, available to all who want to build the next generation of constituent communication tools. The EFF is already working on some exciting things to that end.

“But we just wanted to be able to email our representatives like normal people.

“So, now, if you visit a legislator's page on OpenCongress, you'll see an email address in the right-hand sidebar that looks like Sen.Reid@opencongress.org or Rep.Boehner@opencongress.org. You can also email myreps@opencongress.org to email both of your senators and your House representatives at once.

“The first time we get an email from you, we'll send one back asking for some additional details. This is necessary because our code submits your message by navigating those aforementioned congressional webforms, and we don't want to enter incorrect information. But for emails after the first one, all you'll have to do is click a link that says, ‘Yes, I meant to send that email.’”

It still only allows constituents to email their own legislators.

“... the unfortunate truth is that Congress typically won't bother reading messages from 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.”

Happy emailing!

Basement Beat is an online, occasional blog by Allegan County News editor Ryan Lewis. He writes a regular column in the paper called "Out of the Basement Office." If you want him to write about anything, email him at rmlewis@allegannews.com.

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