Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Politicians care about spelling and grammar

Last year, Dan Butler and David Broockman published an article showing that African American constituents who wrote to state legislators were less likely to receive a response than white constituents were. Jayme Neiman, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska, has applied this same framework to a new idea -- the quality of written correspondence. She details the results in her MPSA paper "Does Quality Matter? State Legislative Response to Constituent Communication."

Basically, she sent out e-mails to a random selection of state legislators across the country. Half received a well-written request for information on registering to vote, and the other half received a poorly-worded, poorly-spelled piece of drivel on the same topic. Neiman reports than 62 percent of the well-written e-mails received a response, while only 45% of the poorly-written ones did. Legislators were also more likely to respond themselves (rather than refer the letter to a staffer for response) to the well-written ones.

From my own experiences answering mail for politicians, poorly-written letters are less of a concern than crazy ones -- aliens, fluoride conspiracies, etc. But I admit that's a lot harder to operationalize in a study.


andrew said...

Legislators aren't as oblivious of their mail as they sometimes seem. I recall working in the office of Don Pease (D-OH, Ways and Means), when a letter came in about law limiting product liability for guns to genuinely defective guns that he planned to vote for. He promptly tasked me to write a letter back to the constitutient who had flooded him over the years with letters opposing gun control legislation that the Democrat backed and wanted to be able to show common cause for once. Persistent critics may not be influential, but legislators are frequently aware of who their persistent critics are and what they have to say.

Matt Jarvis said...

My favorite was how we should sue the Russian government to recoup costs of plains flooding cleanup in the late 1990s. Reason: Russian weather laser.

I've got a grad student approaching the question kinda from the opposite side. She's sent emails to MCs from one account saying "be pro-life" and a different account saying "be pro-choice." Looked up addresses inside every CD to include to increase the response rate, too. She's coding the responses based on whether they're trying to take both sides, being non-committal, or just saying "I agree" to one and "I disagree" to the other. So far, just descriptive stats, but she presented it at WPSA last month.