Rep. Don Young woos voters with telephone meetings

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2007

ANCHORAGE - U.S. Rep. Don Young is reaching out to voters through an increasingly popular tool for lawmakers: the telephone town hall meeting.

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Lawmakers can reach out to thousands of constituents at a time with the help of computer dialing programs and a database of phone numbers.

The technology has proven particularly valuable for lawmakers representing Western states.

"He loves them," said Meredith Kenny, a spokeswoman for Young, R-Alaska. "It's hard being in Washington, D.C., and so far away and not being able to get back to the district as often."

Autodialing computer programs call as many as 50,000 people at once, alerting them to the meetings. Recipients of the calls can either hang up or stay on the line. Residents who aren't home get sorry-we-missed-you messages.

"Even people who really care about politics, are they going to drive to a town meeting?" said David Jacobs, a partner with the Franking Group, a Utah company that Young's office uses for the telephone meetings. "You're sitting in the convenience of your own home, the phone rings. If you want to answer you can. If you want to stay on the phone you can. It's convenient."

The format of the meetings are up to the congressman. People can line up to ask questions, or they can leave messages for staffers. Generally, several hundred people are tuned in at once.

Lawmakers running the calls have the power to cut off obnoxious callers. Young, however, takes the call and makes the most of it, Kenny said. Young is so enamored of the process, he hopes to make them regular events, Kenny said.

"We have the option of dropping callers, but we don't do that with him," Kenny said. "He likes the back and forth."

The town hall meetings are especially popular with House members, whose two-year re-election cycle pressures them to keep in close contact with constituents.

The phone meetings are covered under the "franking" privileges held by each member of Congress, which allows them to send mail at taxpayer expense to update constituents on their activities.

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