By Michael M. Shapiro
According to the Office of Legislative Services, the only way for residents of New Jersey to contact Legislators by email is through an online form available on the website for the New Jersey State Legislature, www.njleg.state.nj.us.
The online form has a number of significant problems that make it unnecessarily difficult for residents to use. Because of these problems, I asked the Office of Legislative Services for the email addresses of our state legislators so that I could contact them without using the online form. The office told me that the email addresses for the legislators are not available to the public “because of severe spamming problems” and therefore “the form is the current protocol.”
If a resident wishes to contact his legislator via email, he currently needs to go to the legislature’s website, www.njleg.state.nj.us. If he knows his legislator’s name, he can use the roster available on the site to get to a webpage that allows him to fill out an online form to send a message to the legislator. If he does not know the elected official’s name, the resident can locate him as long as he knows either the municipality or election district in which that resident lives. Fair enough. On to filling out the form…
First, one needs to check off whether he would like to email his state senator, and/or either of his assemblymen or both. Then he needs to input both his first and last name; these fields are mandatory and the site will not allow the message to be sent unless they are filled in. Next, the resident has to input his street address and city; again these fields are mandatory and the message will not be sent without these blanks having been completed. He then can fill in a message and click to send the message to the particular legislators he has selected from his district.
What’s wrong with this process? First, a resident cannot send an email to a legislator outside of his district without filling out another entire form. If he would like to send an email to legislators from five different legislative districts, he needs to fill out five separate forms. What if he would like to send an email to every legislator? Try 40 separate forms!
Second, residents are required to provide their names. What if a person would like to provide a whistleblower complaint anonymously or has information about corruption that he would like to share with an elected official but does not want his name involved? He cannot do so using the online form.
Third, residents are required to provide their full address. What if a person is fearful of retribution if he communicates with a legislator about a problem he is having? For example, a resident is being unfairly treated by a mayor in a legislator’s district and appeals to the legislator for his thoughts. Thanks to the form, the legislator knows the mayor’s identity without the complainant ever sharing that information, and can pass the informant’s address on to the mayor, much to the resident’s chagrin.
Fourth, the online form has no option to send a copy of the message to oneself. Therefore, a resident can fill out the online form and has no proof he sent the email and also has no way of referring to the email in future correspondence. A legislator can deny ever receiving the online form and the resident has no recourse.
Every legislator has his own state-provided email address. Interestingly, lobbyists and other organizations have these email addresses and therefore do not encounter the impediments to communicating with legislators by email that the average New Jersey resident faces. Of course, residents fund the legislature and its email system through their tax dollars, leaving one to wonder why lobbyists and members of other similar organizations can email as many legislators as they would like to with no restriction placed on their communications while the taxpayers who fund the entire apparatus can only communicate by email using a flawed online form.
While the Office of Legislative Services claims that “severe spam” has caused them to no longer provide the email addresses of Legislators, how is it that a resident of New Jersey can send an email to Vice President Cheney at firstname.lastname@example.org but needs to fill out an online form to “email” his state legislator? Spam may indeed be a problem, but surely there is a technological fix.
Even if there is no fix and the form is the only way to go, certainly it could be revamped to make it more user friendly. It could provide an option for the resident to click off that would send a copy of the message to the resident for his records. The form could include the names of all of the legislators and the resident could simply click off to whom he wishes to send the message so that the form only needs to be completed once.
In addition, the name and address fields could be made optional, allowing residents to contact officials without fear of retribution. The only downside of making these fields optional that I can think of is a situation in which a resident threatens a legislator using the form; however, in such a situation, the resident’s online identity could be tracked, enabling him to be found by law enforcement.
The current online form to communicate with our state legislators by email is fundamentally flawed and unnecessarily difficult. Either the email addresses of our state legislators should be made public enabling our residents to contact them via regular email or the online form should be revamped to make communicating in such a manner more user-friendly. If the online form is indeed the only option available, it should be the protocol for everyone, including lobbyists and similar organizations. The taxpayers who pay the bills should receive the same, if not better, email access to their elected officials.
Michael M. Shapiro, founder of ShapTalk.com, is an attorney who resides in New Providence, New Jersey. He currently serves as the Editor of The Alternative Press, www.thealternativepress.com Contact Mike at email@example.com
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