In the year of our lord 2018, in which we have the technology to install voicemail systems with nearly unlimited storage capacities as well as text-to-speech transcription, it would seem that Congresspeople should not have full voicemail inboxes. Yet U.S. citizens who call their Congresspeople may encounter phone lines run so ragged that they are kicked to a voicemail box that is already full, despite constant insistence by activists that picking up the phone is one of the few ways of effecting change as a constituent. How is democracy supposed to function in this scenario?
But because calling Congress is widely agreed to be the best way to influence senators — a fact that activists on Twitter highlight when they characterize calling congresspeople as a matter of civic responsibility — this democratic roadblock is particularly frustrating.
Even more galling is that the solution to this easy, and one senator’s office has already implemented it. Last year, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner’s office installed a system that stores a “virtually unlimited” number of voicemails, according to The New York Times. Yet most congressional offices have only between four and seven phones lines, and their voicemail boxes close after only 100 or so messages — not a high threshold for representatives who govern thousands, if not millions, of people.
The Outline reached out to current and former congressional staffers in eight states to find out if there are rules around how frequently voicemails from constituents have to be listened to. The answer was a resounding shrug. Evidently, there is no overriding Congressional rule governing how frequently voicemails should be listened to, and very few offices disclose their approaches to voicemail systems. Depending on your congressperson and the intensity of the political climate, it might take anywhere from one minute to a week for voicemail inboxes to empty out.
For example, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was notorious for not checking his voicemails, according to Nick O’Neill, a co-founder action committee 5 Calls, which urges people to call their senators. The Texas senator “used to have a really bad contact rate in general and leave voicemail boxes full for a week at a time,” O’Neill said.
From early 2017 to early 2018, Cruz’s office had an “unavailable” rate — meaning no one answered constituent calls and his voicemail was full — of 9 percent. But that changed suddenly at the start of 2018. Calls to Cruz went through regularly. His voicemail almost always had free space. His “unavailable” rate dropped to just 2 percent. (The average for all representatives is 3 percent.)
Cruz’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Outline. (All of the reporting in this story was done via email.) O’Neill speculates that there’s a simple reason Cruz has suddenly made his voicemail a priority: Beto O’Rourke, Cruz’s more accessible Democratic challenger for the Senate, who could actually unseat Cruz.
How often staff check voicemails tends to be just as arbitrary from office to office, but in general, Congressional voicemails are checked daily by low-level staffers or interns. According to O’Neill, who has collected data on the subject since early 2017, “it’s standard for voicemail boxes to be listened and tallied daily.”
Feeling ghosted by your senator? Listen to Michael Waters explain further thoughts on these notoriously full voicemail boxes on The Outline World Dispatch.
Last year, WIRED broke down the math like this: “In the magical scenario where each call takes one minute, offices are open ten hours a day, and no one ever takes a bathroom break, a fully staffed office could take 4,200 calls every day.” Not great odds for senators who represent millions of people.
O’Neill said that people tend to call their representatives after business hours, either because they don’t actually want to talk to a human and anticipate the phone not being answered then or because their work schedule doesn’t allow for a break during the day. So they get the answering machine, and, God willing, are able to leave a voicemail.
Typically, most Congressional voicemail boxes are not at capacity. “It’s when big issues pop up that voicemail boxes fill up quickly, often overnight,” said O’Neill, citing the potential repeal of Obamacare last summer, last year’s Republican tax bill, and the recent family-separation crisis at the border as examples. During the week of January 30, 2017, after Trump’s first attempted an immigration ban, the Senate received over 1.5 million calls a day, the busiest in Capitol switchboard history.
Staffers may develop a routine of managing voicemails, according to Celeste Pewter, a former political staffer in California. For instance, checking after lunch or first thing each morning. “It's not that uncommon for most diligent political staffers to sit at their desk every morning and listen to all voicemails immediately, as they come in,” said Pewter. Although in-office supervisors do not strictly enforce how often staffers check voicemails, supervisors “will eventually notice if the mailbox isn't emptied out,” Pewter said.
Pewter also said that some offices task interns with answering voicemails, which may contribute to inbox overflow since few interns work full-time.
Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey has for years been one of the hardest-to-reach Congresspeople. Toomey’s voicemail inbox has been full for as much as two weeks at a time, Politics USA reported in February 2017. One constituent, Dana Kellerman, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in February 2017 that, out of 30 phone calls she placed to Toomey’s Pennsylvania and D.C. offices during the course of a week, every single one was sent to a voicemail inbox that was already full. According to O’Neill’s data, 90 percent of Toomey’s calls are sent straight to voicemail, which is often already full.
Reached for comment, Toomey’s office did not specify what, if any, guidelines it enforces around the topic of answering voicemails. Toomey’s communication director has previously said, as FiveThirtyEight paraphrased, “it’s hard to quickly process all the messages coming in on various platforms due to the huge volume the office is getting each day.” Many constituents have taken to faxing Toomey — he’s one of the most-faxed congresspeople in the nation, according to FaxZero, with the company sending his office roughly 500 faxes per month.
Being inaccessible by phone is a significant problem, considering that the alternatives are so comically bad: you can send an email, which representatives largely ignore, or a fax, which some staffers say aren’t effective because it feels “weird” to receive a fax. Another option is an app like Stance, which lets users record a voice message that it then delivers to their congressperson’s voicemail. But the app has faced privacy issues because it reserves the right to display your recorded messages publicly with no way to opt out.
The fact that constituents have to go to extreme lengths — in one case, scrawling a message on a pizza delivered to Utah senator Orrin Hatch — simply to tell their representatives something is symptomatic of a technological failure that doesn’t have to happen in the first place. Upgrading to greater-capacity voicemail inboxes and adopting clearer policies around checking voicemails would mean that constituents can be heard even in the heat of political firestorms. For people calling their representatives about Brett Kavanaugh this fall, there will be nothing like the sweet, sweet click of a below-capacity voicemail.