Web app gets your message to Congress with 18th century technology — the U.S. mail

 Temple graduate Ryan Epp is the creator of Snail Mail Congress which gets constituent concerns to elected officials using the postal service. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Temple graduate Ryan Epp is the creator of Snail Mail Congress which gets constituent concerns to elected officials using the postal service. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Twitter might be President Donald Trump’s favorite way to connect with commoners, but when citizens want their leaders’ ears, a telephone call to their district office is the best way to get heard, insiders say.

So that was Ryan Epp’s first move a few months ago when he wanted to tell U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey his concerns about Betsy DeVos, the controversial charter-school champion who Trump nominated to be his education secretary.

“No one was picking up the phone in his office. I called like 25 times in one day and didn’t get a response,” said Epp, 26, of Lancaster. “So I decided to write Sen. Toomey a letter. And I did that, printed it out — and then realized I was out of stamps.”

So Epp, a self-employed software developer and entrepreneur, did what any software-developing entrepreneur might do when presented with such a problem: He created a solution.

Snail Mail Congress, an online service Epp launched last month, invites citizens to upload letters to their representatives that Epp, for $1.28 per letter, then will print and mail. 

“I’ve been sending out letters every day, and there was even one day when I couldn’t fit all the mail in my mailbox and had to put them in a box and drive to the post office,” said Epp, who has a third-party service on standby to help with mailing, should the need arise.

The service is nonpartisan, he says — so forget about asking what irked him about DeVos, whose nomination resulted in a deluge of constituent calls to Congress that overwhelmed many lawmakers’ offices, including Toomey’s.

Epp doesn’t even read the letters constituents send through his service. He just sees Snail Mail Congress as a way to get citizens more involved in the political process during an especially volatile time in American politics, when many are so disengaged that about half of U.S. voters typically don’t bother to vote.

“Civic engagement should be more than just voting once a year; it should be a year-round thing,” Epp said. “So getting people actively engaged in the process in any way is good. I don’t want to pretend this is a solution to that problem, but hopefully it’s a little step in the right direction.”

Epp, who studied computer science at Temple University, worked at a Center City advertising agency and for Kindle, the digital book company, in Seattle before he moved to Lancaster to start his own company, Poeko.

His other projects are decidedly less civically motivated: Yarn is an interactive story app, while Telesketch is “like whisper-down-the-lane Pictionary,” Epp said.

That’s not to say he’s one-and-done on civic engagement.

He admits he’s inspired by one Midwest campaign underway that urges constituents to mail potatoes to a Wisconsin senator to pressure him to hold a town hall. (Why mail potatoes? Because you can. In fact, it’s spawned a mini industry, but that’s a whole other story.)

“Town Hall Potatoes — maybe that’s next for me,” Epp joked.

So what does Toomey think of the service his office inspired?

“Sen. Toomey respects Mr. Epp’s efforts to help people make their voices heard and for embracing the spirit of entrepreneurship,” Toomey’s spokesman Steve Kelly said. “As a former small-business owner himself, Sen. Toomey understands the great amount of effort it takes to launch a successful business, and he wishes Mr. Epp the best of luck.”

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