- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 10, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Rep. Jerry Moran spoke on a recent weeknight 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 the Kansas Republican and other members of Congress connect with voters as never before.

“I’m not trying to replace the time I spend in Kansas,” Mr. Moran said. “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 as many as 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 have tried the technology during the past year, said Rodney Smith, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Tele-Town Hall LLC.

“It’s like listening to a party line,” Mr. 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. 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 also can 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, Minnesota Republican. He has held eight tele-town hall meetings since hearing about the concept from Rep. Dan Lungren, California Republican and the first lawmaker to try the service.

About a half-hour into Mr. 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?” Mr. Moran asks.

Mr. 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 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.

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,” Mr. 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.”

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