U.S. Representative Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa.

United States Representative Lloyd Smucker, R-Pa., representing the 11th congressional district, during an interview at Greenfield Park in East Lampeter Twp. Tuesday Nov. 24, 2020.

U.S. Rep. Lloyd Smucker will attend a “town hall-style” meeting tonight in Elizabethtown hosted by a local conservative group, an event that’s billed as being open to “all patriots” and “anyone that loves freedom.”

Smucker is appearing at the invitation of the Free PA Capital Area chapter, whose conservative members are likely to provide a receptive audience for the Republican lawmaker. A notice published on the group’s Facebook page says journalists are not allowed to cover the event, and attendees are barred from recording the event on video or audio. 

Free PA's statewide network was born out of frustrations over the pandemic lockdowns and former President Donald Trump's loss in the 2020 election. Its members now champion a range of conservative views, from supporting state Sen. Doug Mastriano's efforts to conduct a partisan audit of the election to opposing the COVID-19 vaccination effort. Members are also active in pressing local school districts to ban teaching of critical race theory and bar transgender athletes from playing on sports teams. 

While it’s not unusual for lawmakers to accept invitations from private groups, tonight’s event fits a pattern Smucker has followed since he was first elected to Congress in 2016. Instead of hosting public forums open to any of his constituents, Smucker opts for telephone town hall events that most constituents get no advance notice of. In fact, he hasn’t hosted an in-person town hall since April 2014, when he was a member of the Pennsylvania Senate, according to a review of LNP | LancasterOnline archives and Smucker’s social media accounts and websites.

Limiting access to forums hosted by lawmakers isn’t unique to Smucker, especially over the past few decades when town hall meetings were targeted by activist groups hoping to embarrass politicians.

Still, Smucker’s predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Joe Pitts, hosted town halls regularly during his nearly 20-year-long tenure, including contentious ones during the debate over health care reform that saw angry attendees demand that Pitts do more to block “socialized health care,” according to LNP | LancasterOnline archives.

And U.S. Rep. Scott Perry, the Republican representing the neighboring 10th District, held at least one public town hall in 2019 that drew supporters and opponents alike, WITF reported at the time. Perry, unlike Smucker, represents a more closely divided district and was a top target of Democrats in 2020.

Phoning it in

Instead of in-person forums, Smucker has made frequent use of tele-town halls during his four-and-a-half years in the House -- more than 50 in all, his office said. But constituents in the 11th Congressional District, made up of Lancaster and southern York counties, often get no warning of when he’s hosting a call-in meeting, and dial-in information is not widely advertised ahead of time. 

For the phone forums, a random group of constituents receives an automated call from Smucker’s office instructing them to remain on the line to listen to the town hall. Recordings of these calls are not made available afterwards, so respondents who are busy or hang up part way through a call have no option to replay it later. 

Smucker’s office said tele-town halls are often targeted to people living in specific parts of the district. Since the start of the pandemic, his office said the congressman has held at least one telephone forum each month. His office will call anywhere from tens of thousands of residents to hundreds of thousands of them, according to Eric Reath, Smucker’s spokesperson.

Reath said constituents can’t call into the telephone forums due to limited technology, but those who wish to participate can use the “contact” form on Smucker’s website to request to be added to the next tele-town hall. Calls are scheduled based on Smucker’s voting schedule that month, Reath said. During a tele-town hall, attendees can signal that they’d like to ask the congressman a question, and his staff working behind the scenes can select individual callers to voice their questions.

Smucker is not alone in using tele-town halls to speak with a large number of voters. But other lawmakers advertise their phone forums ahead of time and offer call-in information to anyone who wants to participate. That’s the practice of Smucker’s Pennsylvania colleague, U.S. Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Lebanon, who hosted a tele-town hall as recently as April

More recently, the COVID-19 pandemic prompted elected officials to find new ways to engage with residents, with some holding drive-in town halls, including Pennsylvania Democrat Sen. Bob Casey. 

Smucker's office did not indicate whether the congressman plans to host any in-person town hall events in the near future, and there are no plans for one publicly available as of publication of this story.

Best practices

When done right, town halls offer an opportunity to bring people together and reduce polarization, said Adam Lawrence, a government and political affairs professor and director of the Walker Center for Civic Responsibility and Leadership at Millersville University.

“It’s fair to expect our elected officials to meet with and respond to citizens from all walks of life, of all political stripe, regardless of their opinions,” Lawrence said. “Democracy is not supposed to be conducted in a form in which elected officials only meet with those that support them.”

“He’s from a super safe district, he’s an incumbent,” Lawrence said. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to unseat him. There’s really little for him to gain to hold these things… But there are plenty of safe incumbents who hold these things regularly. I don’t think we should necessarily let him off the hook. Citizens should expect their elected officials to hold town halls.”

Smucker’s office said he regularly meets with constituents with a variety of viewpoints, and he will meet with anyone in his district, no matter their point of view. And the congressman provides responses to inquiries about his votes by letter, though some constituents complain that these are automated responses that do not take their input seriously.

Smucker didn’t always avoid hosting public forums open to all constituents, holding some when he represented southern Lancaster County in the state Senate from 2009 to 2016. 

In 2012, Smucker pointed to his town hall meetings as a reason why he would not appear at a debate with his Democratic challenger.

“My Senate schedule and own town hall meetings allow me to have a great deal of contact with my constituents,” Smucker wrote in response to his Democratic challenger, Tom O’Brien’s, invitation. 

During the 2018 midterm election, Smucker was criticized for not holding town halls in his first House term. That year, Jamie Beth Schindler wrote a column in LNP | LancasterOnline about wanting to bring her two children to a congressional town hall to learn more about being an informed member of their democracy — something she said was instilled in her by her dad, who taught civics.

As an alternative to hosting an in-person town hall, Smucker invited Schindler, 45, of Mountville, and her kids to a private meeting with him at his district office. 

“A one-on-one meeting has its place, but it doesn’t replace a town hall,” Schindler said. “What it showed them was that their congressman has talking points that they stick to, regardless of where the conversation might go.”

Schindler said she wouldn’t attend an in-person town hall at this time if Smucker began hosting them, noting that her children are too young to be vaccinated. But if it weren’t for COVID-19, she would attend them frequently.

“Accessibility to everyone in the community, regardless of whether they voted for him or not, in a public setting aids transparency and the democratic process,” Schindler said.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misrepresented Schindler's children. She has a son and daughter.

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