One problem many constituents and political activists have in common is whether or not legislators actually pay attention to the people that contact them. I believe most people think legislators do not regard constituents wishes when making a decision about proposed legislation. However, a study from 2014 finds that is not the case.
Daniel Bergan and Richard Cole conducted a field study in Michigan to measure how much or how little contact from constituents influenced the way a legislator voted on a particular policy issue. In 2011 there was a statewide effort to pass an anti-bullying bill. The bill was named “Matt’s Safe School Law” after Matt Epling, a Michigan teen who committed suicide after being bullied intensely in 2002, would require Michigan public schools to develop an anti-bullying policy. Whether the government ought to pass laws such as these is a topic for another article.
One of the strategies the School-Community Alliance of Michigan and their coalition partners explored was to mobilize citizen supporters of the bill to contact their legislators directly. As part of the study, legislators were randomly assigned to receive a target number of phone calls at different tiers (22, 33, 65 respectively) while legislators in the control group were not assigned to receive any phone calls. Although some constituents may have called, they were not assigned to do so as part of the study.
Calls were placed by a political consulting firm to constituents in the districts of the legislators randomly assigned to receive calls, they were played a short informational clip about the bill and asked if they would be willing to contact their legislator. If they said yes, they were immediately patched through to their legislator’s office.
The outcome variable in the study is the final vote on the bill. Comparing legislators who were assigned to receive at least one call to those in the control group, the study estimated that the targeted legislators were 11-12% more likely to support the legislation.
Other factors come into play with the results of the study. There are not many studies on the results of advocacy and in 2011 anti bullying was not a highly publicized issue within Michigan, which is noted by one of the study’s authors. Bergan also cautions that, “Relatively little is known about advocacy campaigns. Citizen groups and researchers should use experimentation to add to our understanding of advocacy and policymaking.”
Overall, he summarizes the study results, “the number of calls did not matter beyond the effect of simply being contacted at all. This may be due to the fact that state legislators, outside of some highly salient issues, are not frequently contacted by constituents, and even a small handful of calls may be sufficient to influence legislative voting. Second, there was no detectable difference in the magnitude of the effects on legislators based on legislator party affiliation or gender, the competitiveness of the legislators’ district, or a number of other characteristics.”
This paints a more positive than negative picture, even with the extenuating factors Bergan mentions. When in doubt, make the call to your legislator. They are up to 12% more likely to vote the way you prefer them to and in a world where most voters feel marginalized that can’t be a bad thing.