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Lawmakers hold 'tele-town hall meetings'

Technology that can connect thousands of people on a single phone call is letting  members of Congress connect with voters like never before.
Jerry Moran
Rep. Jerry Moran, R- Kan., talks on the phone with constituents in his Capital Hill office Monday, Jan. 29, 2007, in Washington. Moran is taking advantage of a new technology that allows him to talk to thousands of people on a single phone call. Evan Vucci / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On a recent weeknight, Kansas Rep. Jerry Moran spoke to nearly 10,000 of his constituents at once — from the comfort of his Capitol Hill office.

Technology that can connect thousands of people on a single phone call is letting Moran and other members of Congress connect with voters like never before.

"I'm not trying to replace the time I spend in Kansas," said Moran, a Republican. "But this kind of technology allows me to tie my district together in a way that 69 individual town hall meetings does not."

A "tele-town hall meeting" lets lawmakers call up to 35,000 households in their district at random by using a special automated dialing system. A recorded voice tells those who answer to stay on the line if they want to participate in the meeting.

More than 50 members of Congress, including a few senators, have tried the technology over the past year, said Rodney Smith, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Tele-Town Hall LLC.

"It's like listening to a party line," Smith said. "People very much enjoy the interaction, the fact that a congressman would call them, the fact that they get a chance to ask a question."

Between 200 and 1,000 constituents stay on for an extended portion of a typical call. Thousands more drift on and off the line as the system dials 6,000 numbers per minute. As many as 12,000 people can be on the line at one time.

Listeners can participate too. Press the pound key and you can get in line to ask a question. A lawmaker can also poll the audience on a topic and listeners can press numbers to vote.

"The technology is terrific because it allows me to have conversations with constituents in a way that, prior to this, was simply impossible," said Rep. John Kline, R-Minn. He has held eight tele-town hall meetings since hearing about the concept from Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., who was the first lawmaker to try the service.

The lawmaker conducting the call can track the names and addresses of everyone lining up to ask questions on a computer screen through a special Web site.

About a half hour into Moran's most recent tele-town hall meeting, the screen shows 946 households on the call and 230 waiting to ask a question. He sounds like a radio talk show host as he scrolls through the list of those who want to talk, looking for a sampling of residents from different parts of his district.

"Let's go to Hutchinson, is this a caller from Hutchinson?" Moran asks.

He has asked his listeners to let him know what they think about President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq. The computer screen keeps a running total of those who have pressed the number one for yes and two for no. By the end of the call, the tally is 479 in favor and 298 against.

Tele-Town Hall founder Smith, a former political fundraiser, said he first tried the concept 10 years ago, but at that time the phone system could not handle the call volume. Today, he has 22 computers located at strategic sites in New York City and Las Vegas that can handle more than one meeting at a time.

The service has a patent pending and Smith just finished a business plan to see if he can get outside financing to help boost his customer base.

The service costs $2,500 for the first 25,000 answered calls, those either picked up by a live person, or go to an answering machine or voice mail. Lawmakers pay for the service with the same funds used to set up local town hall meetings.

At one of those usual get-togethers in his suburban Minneapolis district, Kline said he can expect between 25 and 100 people to show up. The chance to draw thousands of constituents without having to advertise lets lawmakers broaden their reach beyond political activists and interest groups that can dominate local meetings, he said.

"You get to hear things from people who probably wouldn't pack up and head down on a winter night in Minnesota to come to a town hall meeting, but they will sit in their kitchen and happily participate," Kline said.

Moran, whose district covers 69 counties over more than 55,000 square miles, said he likes how the tele-town hall can bring people together from all over the state.

Residents in Liberal, Kan., in the southeast corner of the state, can hear what people from Sabetha, in the far northeast corner have to say.

At the end of the meeting, anyone who stays on the line can leave a voice mail with comments that will later be e-mailed to Moran's office as audio files. His staff will listen to every message and respond with an e-mail or follow-up phone call.

Not everyone is impressed by the new technology.

Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, guessed that most of the callers who stay on the line are more politically active than those who drop off.

"It's not a revolution," Gans said. "As it takes hold and people talk about it, it may bring in people beyond the activist community, but that hasn't been proved yet."