Congress stops spam--but not its own

WASHINGTON (01/15/2004) - Congress crowed about cleaning up our in-boxes with the passage of an antispam law last year, but brace yourself: Some of this year's unsolicited e-mail may feature the latest news from your congressional representatives.

Members of Congress are increasingly using e-mail to communicate with their constituents. They are aided by several companies that have developed ways to provide politicians with extensive e-mail addresses of those they hope to reach.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential candidates have already plunged into e-mail marketing, relying on online promotions and e-mail solicitations in their campaigns.

Snapping Up Names

More than 30 members of Congress have purchased lists of constituents' e-mail addresses from Rightclick Strategies, and more than 20 are customers of @dvocacy. Both companies create for each client a unique list of e-mail addresses.

"In the past two years we've seen a pretty dramatic switch," says John Hart, communications director for Representative Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina), who uses Rightclick as a source of constituents' e-mail addresses. "Five years ago probably 75 percent (of communication) was traditional, and today 75 percent is probably e-mail."

The lists are compiled by cross-matching names in the registered voter database for a particular district or state against the e-mail addresses of people who have opted in to mailing lists. Rightclick Strategies maintains a database of more than 160 million names and e-mail addresses, according to Jeff Mascott, managing director.

Rightclick Strategies, which supplies data mainly to Republicans, has been creating lists for members of Congress for two to three years, Mascott says. Democrats draw their lists primarily from @dvocacy, which has been supplying such information for only five months. Officials from each company say they get several calls each week asking for lists.

The first e-mail a constituent receives from a congressmember is often unsolicited, which could be a problem under the CAN-SPAM Act. The new law mandates that commercial e-mail be sent only if requested, and that senders honor recipients' request to have their addresses removed from future mailings.

Both congressmembers and the businesses that supply the addresses are quick to note that their messages always include the option to unsubscribe. Most lists send out a preliminary e-mail inquiry to see if communication is desired.

Economies of E-Mail

Members of Congress see the switch from physical to virtual mail as a time- and money-saving device.

"It's a much more cost-effective way for voters and members of Congress to stay in communication. I think you'll be seeing more and more offices doing this," Hart says. "It's a much easier way for people to express their opinions to their elected officials."

Hart says it costs about US$30,000 less to do an electronic mass communication compared with a traditional paper mailing.

The price of e-mail lists varies depending on their size, say both Rightclick Strategies' Mascott and Roger Stone, president of @dvocacy. Stone estimates it costs at least a few thousand dollars per list.

Roger France, press secretary to Representative Charles Taylor (R-North Carolina), says it cost the congressman's office "about a quarter a name." Hart says DeMint's list cost about $14,000. Buying the lists enabled both representatives to add about 20,000 addresses to the constituent e-mail lists they were already compiling.

DeMint's first newsletter went out last week and included items like the congressman's efforts to get South Carolina native "Shoeless" Joe Jackson into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Newell writes for the Medill News Service.

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