The Internet is transforming our democracy, and has received much scholarly and popular attention. Strikingly little attention, however, has been focused on how the Internet might facilitate and enable conversations between citizens and Members of Congress. This report aims to at least partially fill this deficit. To this end, we facilitated 20 online town hall meetings in 2006 with U.S. Representatives and one event in 2008 with a U.S. Senator, with a total number of participants in excess of 600.
The sessions were moderated by a member of the research team. The Member and moderator spoke via voice over IP, and constituents asked questions and made comments by typing them. Only off-topic, redundant, unintelligible, or offensive questions were screened, and only questions asked by people who had not yet asked a question were prioritized.
In order to be able to examine the impact of the online town hall meetings, we randomly assigned individuals to participate (treatment subjects) or not to participate (control subjects). We surveyed both groups three times during the study; once before the online town hall, once about a week after the online town hall, and once after the election in the same year (2006 or 2008). The comparison between treatment subjects and controls, much as in a rigorous drug trial, allow one to infer whether the online town halls actually had an effect on participants.
Through this research, we found that:
- The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member. Every Member involved experienced an increase in approval by the constituents who participated. The average net approval rating (approve minus disapprove) jumped from +29 before the session to +47 after. There were also similar increases in trust and perceptions of personal qualities – such as whether they were compassionate, hardworking, accessible, etc. – of the Member.
- The online town halls increased constituents’ approval of the Member’s position on the issue discussed. Constituents’ approval of their Member’s position on immigration (the issue discussed in most of the sessions) jumped from 20% to 58%. There were also large shifts in participants’ positions on the issue toward the position of the Member, as well as significant increases in their policy knowledge of the issue.
- The town halls attracted a diverse array of constituents. These sessions were more likely than traditional venues to attract people from demographics not traditionally engaged in politics and people frustrated with the political system. Of the seven demographic characteristics that traditionally predict participation in partisan and activist politics, six had the opposite effect for participation in the online town halls (only level of education had the same effect).
- The town halls increased engagement in politics. Participants in the sessions were more likely to vote and were dramatically more likely to follow the election and to attempt to persuade other citizens how to vote.
- The town halls increased the probability of voting for the Member. The probability of voting for the Member was 49% for control subjects and 56% for people who participated in a session with their Member. The impact was particularly dramatic for swing voters, where a person with a 50% probability of voting for the Member in the control condition was 73% more likely to do so if he or she participated in the town hall.
- The discussions in the town halls were of high quality. By standard measures of deliberative quality (quality of information, use of accurate facts to support arguments, respect for alternative points of view, perceptions of participants) the discussions in these sessions were of quite high quality.
- The sessions were extremely popular with constituents. A remarkable 95% of participants stated that they would like to participate in similar events in the future.
- The positive results were seen even in a larger session. Most of the sessions were conducted by Representatives with small groups of 15-25 constituents. To test the scalability, we conducted one session with a Senator and nearly 200 constituents. We saw the same positive results in this session as those described above.
These sessions had the further advantage of carrying a low overhead. The demands on the Member’s time were minimal, because there was no need to expend time getting to and from a particular location. All they needed was access to a telephone.
The design of the event likely enhanced the impact of the town halls. The sessions were structured to recruit a diverse set of constituents, involved light-handed moderation by a neutral party (a member of the research team), transparent involvement by the particular Member (because the Member’s voice could be heard in real time), and a focus on a timely issue (immigration). We also provided brief, unbiased information on the issue in advance.
Comparative research between town hall meetings conducted in-person, on the telephone and online needs to be conducted, but it appears that the online forum provides another excellent opportunity for citizens and their elected officials to exchange information and share their views.
Download the handouts from the briefing: othm-briefing-handouts (1.1 MB)
Download the entire report: Online-Town-Hall-Meetings (1.0 MB)
Copyright 2009 by the Congressional Management Foundation