Connecting candidates, voters remotely

When Charles Rudnick, a candidate for the Massachusetts state senate, held a recent town hall meeting with residents in the Newton, Mass. area, he did so from the comfort of his home office thanks to a large-scale conference calling service known as a tele-town hall meeting.

For about 90 minutes, Rudnick and consultant Ed Marin fielded live questions from potential constituents on a range of topics.

Tele-Town Hall meeting"We thought it would be a good way to do outreach to the community," says Ed Marin, consultant to the Rudnick campaign. "Voters who wanted to talk to Charles but couldn't do it any other way. ...You know, Charles goes door-to-door, but you can't get to all the residents."

Instead, area voters received two phone calls: one, an automated phone message a few days before the event providing the date, time, and instructions for participating on the call; and two, an automated phone call at the start time of the event. Voters who wanted to listen in simply stayed on the line once they were called; those who wanted to ask a question simply pressed a number on their telephone keypad.

Those with questions were routed to a call center at Rudnick's campaign office in Newton, where his staffers cued up questions and forwarded them to Rudnick at his home office. Rudnick then connected with each caller in turn and answered their question live.

Marin added, "What was cool was at the end of the call, if you didn't get to ask a question during the call, you could leave a voice mail...and Charles called them back personally."

An audio file of the conference call was also made available at the candidate's website.

The large-scale conference call was made possible by a company named, not coincidentally, Tele-Town Hall, which developed a patent-pending automated dialing system and combined it with cloud-based services that since 2006, has enabled clients to conduct calls easily--as long as they have a broadband connection.

Tele-Town Halls (TTHs) aren't without their share of critics, who point out that candidates can control what questions get asked and that the candidate can avoid meeting the public face to face--limiting "real" discourse and perhaps distorting a candidate's view of his or her constituency.

But the technology itself is a good example of real-world applications of cloud-based communications that go beyond simple phone calls or data transfer and meet a specific need.

Tele-Town Hall conference queueTTH's mass automated variable speed dialing system uses a VoIP connection to dial out to thousands of phone numbers from a preselected list, and can initiate several hundred automated calls simultaneously.

"We have a number of data centers located across the US, and we utilize multiple carriers to create a high level of security and system dependability," TTH Director of Marketing & Advertising Chris Elizondo told FierceTelecom.

In this case, Tele Town Hall's service connects candidates to voters at a more convenient time and place for both.

"That's the other great thing about TTH. There might be crappy weather, you might be stuck in traffic...and can't make the meeting. With a Tele-Town Hall all you have to do is take the call," says Marin.

Price is another factor in using the service. For $2,000, the Rudnick campaign was able to auto-call "tens of thousands" of voters, Marin says, with several hundred staying on the call to participate in the meeting.

Elizondo points out the value of the service compared to other methods of getting a candidate's message out to voters. "I've seen mailouts that are $695 to send to 200 people... For around that same price, we could contact twice that amount. For $2000 we can contact a lot more."

An October 2007 report by the Congressional Institute found that, despite some initial reluctance to communicate with their representatives via conference call, constituents of U.S. House and Senate members expressed a preference for TTHs by a nearly two to one margin over traditional, in-person town hall meetings. But a 2010 report noted that TTHs are still underutilized, with only 16.8 percent of constituents responding to a CI poll saying they'd received a TTH invitation in 2009.

But, Rudnick's spokesperson says, the state senate candidate sees the potential that TTHs have to directly communicate with constituents. If he's elected, Marin says, "Charles plans on using the TTH as outreach for his constituents."

For more:
- see this Congressional Institute study
- this PolHudson blog post

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