If you’ve tried to call your senator since Trump took office, you may have gotten a busy signal, or a message that the office voicemail is full because of the overwhelming number of people calling. A new app offers another way to get in touch that’s arguably even easier than sending an email: If you send a few texts, a bot will convert your message into an old-fashioned fax.
The process is simple. When you send the word “resist” to 50409, Resistbot responds and asks for your zip code to identify your senators. You type whatever you want to say, the bot formats it into a letter, and minutes later, the fax is delivered and you receive a picture of it. The next day, the bot follows up to ask for your full address and confirms who your House representative is so that it can also fax your letters to them.
While there are many other tools that attempt to connect people with elected officials, this might be one of the easiest to use.
“Civic engagement isn’t a tools problem, it’s an engagement problem, and it hasn’t been solved yet,” Jason Putorti, one of the volunteers who built Resistbot, tells Fast Company. “There’s tons of tools to contact Congress. If they worked well then they’d be as ubiquitous as Facebook, Twitter, or other services people engage with on a daily basis . . . Resistbot is just one more experiment in a long lineage, and our goal is that the user experience will help people engage regularly with the people that represent them.”
It’s also a way around overloaded phone lines. The nonprofit Congressional Management Foundation, which is currently working to quantify the massive increase in calls and emails to representatives over the last two months, says that, anecdotally, some offices are seeing a quadrupling in the number of messages, or more.
“We’re seeing in some offices where they might get, on a busy month, 6,000 or 7,000 messages–we’re now seeing some offices get more than 8,000 a week,” says Brad Fitch, president and CEO of the Congressional Management Foundation, which works with Congress and constituents to make their interactions more effective. “That’s in the House of Representatives. In the Senate, it’s even in the hundreds of thousands.”
After the election, Emily Ellsworth, a former congressional staffer, tweeted a series of suggestions about the best way to contact a member of Congress. Phone calls, she said, were more effective than letters or emails. But the Congressional Management Foundation surveyed congressional offices and found that in-person visits have the most impact; individualized emails and letters had slightly more impact than phone calls.
The most effective messages, regardless of the format, are written by the constituent and not a form letter. “Smart constituents are individualizing those communications,” says Fitch. “Our research shows that that’s the big differentiator. It’s not the vehicle that they use to communicate the message, it’s the content, and that if individuals personalize their communications, and talk about the impact of a particular bill or an issue on them locally, that is going to have much more impact on congressional offices.”
Resistbot deliberately chose not to offer any scripts. “In a week, we’ve seen tens of thousands of what are clearly very personalized and authentic letters from constituents,” says Putorti. Many have had typos, but that just serves to underscore that they’re coming from actual people and not copied and pasted.
There are some caveats to using the fax as a means of communication: One congressional office told Fast Company on background that because faxes are less common, offices may not necessarily have a standard way to deal with them. You may be more likely to get a reply if you send an email.
Fitch also cautions that if a service doesn’t ask for someone’s full address and include it, it could cause more fundamental problems: Many offices may automatically screen the message out, which could further weaken the relationship between constituents and representatives. “Think about the user experience if I’m a constituent and I use the service and I send a message to Capitol Hill,” Fitch says. “Who am I going to blame if I don’t get a message back? You’re going to blame the member of Congress; you’re going to think you’re ignored. And so that really doesn’t facilitate a good democratic dialogue in a society–that actually has the opposite effect of creating more distrust about democratic institutions.”
Resistbot doesn’t ask for a full address until the second day (on the first day, the fax does include your name, city, zip code, and phone number) because, the app creators say, they wanted to eliminate that extra step to maximize engagement.
“Our most critical goal is daily civic engagement, and everything we’re doing is guided by that north star,” Putorti says. “We shouldn’t be designing first to fit Congress. We should be designing first to fit citizens, and mixing those up is why so few engage with these tools. There’s a possibility that fewer people will sign up asking for a home address immediately, but after they see that first message go through to their senators, with a minimum of effort, there’s love and delight we’re seeing. Then on the second day when we set up a user’s member of Congress, there’s an understanding of why that’s needed without explanation.”
Over time, the app is adding more actions. Since it launched, it now also helps users write letters to the editor of a local paper, and it sent a reminder to Georgia voters about the registration deadline for the upcoming special election in the 6th district to replace Tom Price, who became the health and human services secretary. It may later help users find town hall meetings or make phone calls to Congress, all while trying to make the user experience as seamless as possible.
“There’s a sweet spot that lies somewhere between effort and impact, and we’re going to find it,” says Putorti.