Connecting to Congress organizes single-issue, non-partisan, online town halls. In response to the COVID-19 crisis, it uses deliberative town halls to share information between Members and their constituents and help identify concerns and issues in the Member's district.
Problems and Purpose
Citizens want more information about the public health and socioeconomic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, and about Congress’ response to the crisis. In turn, Members of Congress seek opportunities to communicate the rationale behind their positions and choices, and want to hear about the issues and concerns in their district. The problem is that standard town halls with an elected representative often attract either their most fervent supporters or their most vocal critics . With the current Covid-19 emergency, Connecting to Congress has been using its deliberative town halls to address the high demand for information from both citizens and policymakers . The objective is to support communication between elected officials and the public through a productive, non-partisan mechanism.
Background History and Context
In collaboration with the Congressional Management Foundation, Connecting to Congress has conducted over twenty-five town halls since 2006, including seventeen bipartisan sessions . In 2019, a new series of deliberative town halls was organized on emerging issues to study the effects of these deliberative mechanisms on policymakers. However, the resources were redirected to focus on the COVID-19 crisis in March 2020.
Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
Connecting to Congress is a multi-campus initiative led by the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA) at the Ohio State University. For its series of town halls on COVID-19, IDEA has received funding notably from Ohio State University’s COVID-19 Seed Funding program  and the Democracy Fund. The Congressional Management Foundation has also collaborated on outreach to Members of Congress, related organizations, and funders.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
For the town halls on COVID-19, IDEA is working with their survey partner (YouGov) to recruit a representative cross-section of constituents and invite them to complete a pre-survey. In addition to this representative cross-section subset, the Members of Congress hosting the event can share the invitation with links on their websites and social media. IDEA is also working with nonpartisan community groups to recruit demographic segments of the population who are particularly affected by the COVID-19 crisis.
Methods and Tools Used
The platform used by IDEA for the online town halls can host a maximum of 3,000 individuals (although this can be increased, if necessary). Participants receive background information before the town hall, and they are invited to fill both a pre- and post-survey to capture their opinions and concerns. Members can add specific questions to the surveys. Following the event, a final report is sent to the Member’s congressional office.
Before the town hall, IDEA interviews the Member to discuss their motivations and expectations, and to inquire about their current sources of information about their constituents’ opinions. This interview is used for the evaluation process following the town hall.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
The deliberative online town halls run between 60 to 90 minutes and are moderated by the Connecting to Congress team. A representative from IDEA opens the session by explaining the rules of the town hall and emphasizes the non-partisan nature of the event. The Member then makes their opening remarks before citizens send their COVID-19 related questions through online platforms. IDEA takes the questions on a first-come, first-served basis while giving priority to each participant’s first question, combining the ones that are similar, and rejecting those that are off-topic. The moderator then relays the questions to the Member, whose response is live-streamed to constituents. For bipartisan town halls, both Members have an opportunity to respond to the questions. Before closing remarks from the Member, the organizers ask two live poll questions on Covid-19: 1) Do you have a better understanding of how you can limit the spread of Covid-19, and 2) Are you willing to share what you learned tonight with your friends and family? Following the town hall, participants are invited to complete the post-survey.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
After the town hall, the IDEA team analyzes pre- and post-survey data to show how the town hall affected constituent opinion of the Member and COVID-19 policy actions . Three non-partisan town halls on this topic have been conducted so far:
- Congresswoman Donna Shalala, Florida – Focused on the economic fallout of Covid-19 and the public health measures (experts were invited) (April 16th 2020)
- Rep. Kendra Horn and Mayor David Holt, Oklahoma City – Bipartisan online town hall that focused on the public health dimension of the crisis (the director of the local health department was invited) (April 20th) 
- Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Rep. John Katko, New York - Bipartisan online town hall on various aspects of Covid-19 (the CEO of a local hospital was invited) (April 24th)
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability (IDEA)
 Neblo, Michael, Kevin Esterling, and David Lazer, 2018, Politics With the People: Building a Directly Representative Democracy, Cambridge University Press.
 Connecting to Congress, Connecting to Congress Rapid Response Online Townhalls on Covid-19, https://connectingtocongress.org/covid-rapid-response
 IDEA, What is Connecting to Congress, https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c3f949a4cde7ade8d5c45b0/t/5e8e22f4a6041f3aae175343/1586373405267/Connecting+to+Congress+C2C+One+Pager+2020.pdf
 OSU, Putting deliberative democracy to work during COVID-19, https://artsandsciences.osu.edu/news/deliberative-democracy-covid-19
 Connecting to Congress, C2C is offering free deliberative online town halls to Members of Congress to connect with their constituents on the COVID-19 emergency.
 Connecting to Congress, Connecting to Congress Organizes First Bipartisan Virtual Town Hall Meeting on COVID-19 Held in U.S., https://connectingtocongress.org/latest-news/2020/4/20/connecting-to-congress-organizes-first-bipartisan-virtual-town-hall-meeting-on-covid-19-held-in-us
This entry has been elaborated in collaboration with Amy Lee.