03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

New Study: Online Congressional Townhall Meetings Can Move Voters

The Congressional Management Foundation has just released a useful new report showing that online townhall-type meetings connecting Members of Congress with constituents can have dramatic effects on improving constituent approval of their representatives. Participation in such events can also substantially increase voter turnout and engagement, the study found. Most intriguing, these kinds of meetings can sway constituent opinion in ways that face-to-face townhalls may not. (Though, as Nancy Scola points out, participation in the CMF's townhalls didn't necessarily make voters better informed on the issues themselves.)

The CMF study consisted of 21 online sessions with a diverse and politically balanced group of 13 Members, including one Senator, Carl Levin. Most took place the summer of 2006 and focused on the issue of immigration. About 15 to 25 people participated in the sessions with Representatives, while close to 200 participated in the call with Senator Levin. Each meeting ran for about a half hour, and questions were submitted by participants typing on their computer, while they heard the Member's response by phone or read them via real-time captioning on screen.

The research was conducted like a drug trial, with a group of subjects divided into three groups -- one a control group that got no material and didn't participate in the townhall, one a control group that got some brief background materials on the issue, and the "treatment group" which also got those materials and actually participated in the townhall. The participants were surveyed before the townhalls, a week afterwards, and finally several months later, after the fall election. Participation in the study was not limited to digital natives. People who didn't have a pre-existing internet connection were provided Web-TV connections in order to participate, said Professor David Lazer of Harvard University, the lead author of the study. "It was a nicely representative swath of American society, some people who were comfortable online and some who were not," he told me.

It's important to note that these sessions were different from face-to-face (F2F) townhalls in several important ways. Unlike F2F townhalls, attendees in these sessions were broadly representative of the population at large. Said Professor Michael Neblo of Ohio State University, another of the study's authors, our sessions were "vastly, vastly more representative." People who show up at F2F townhalls either love their Members or have some grievance, he noted. "Our participants were more open to being convinced about something," he added.

The format for the sessions also tended to keep the discussion pretty controlled, unlike sometimes raucous F2F events. Participants couldn't hear or see each other, so there was no mood of the room to form. "We chose these features in part because in 2006, it made running the town hall a bit easier, practically," said Lazer. "Could it be designed to allow easier follow-up questions or more side discussion among participants, absolutely." Unlike tele-townhalls, which are often used by Members to reach out directly to their constituents, these sessions had neutral third-party moderators.

The most interesting finding of the study, to me, was not the news that constituents were more likely to approve of their Member or turn out to vote after participating in these intimate forums. (Voting for the Member went up 5 points, and even more among likely "swing" voters, noted Lazer. Turnout also rose 6 points, compared to the control groups. Trust in the Member jumped 14 points.) It was the discovery that participants were more likely to support their Member's view on immigration policy (whether that was for or against making it a felony to be an illegal immigrant). If a Member supported making it a felony, constituent support for that position grew by 14 points and opposition to that position decline 8 points. If they opposed it, opposition rose 9 points and support dropped 8 points. On the topic of creating a path to citizenship, net support also moved in a similar way, though not quite as pronounced.

The study also demonstrated that certain kinds of online engagement with politics can counteract the concentration effect of the Internet on politics. That is, people who were not already politics junkies were MORE likely to choose to participate in them than not. A direct invitation to participate in an online consultative session with their Member led people who are traditionally less inclined to engage to join in at a statistically higher rate than expected:

Perhaps most interesting of all, constituents whose responses to the survey questions indicated they were generally frustrated and cynical about politics were especially eager to participate. By issuing a direct invitation to the session, rather than a district-wide broadcast, the Member communicates that he or she is specifically interested in what the constituent has to say, often affecting a rather dramatic change in attitude toward the Member. Thus, the online town halls appear to be an especially useful way to reach constituents who might be hard to reach via more traditional methods.

The bottom line of the CMF study: Members of Congress are obviously persuasive in intimate settings. But this study shows that using cheap and easily accessible technology, Members of Congress can effectively connect with their constituents -- including those are typically more cynical about politics -- and hold serious and valuable discussions about issues facing the country, and everyone can benefit from the encounter. E-democracy advocates should take heart. Now, which Members of Congress want to institutionalize this practice?