The initial query on the questionnaire could hardly have been more open-ended. "What," Del. Judith Toth asked 1,000 of her constituents, "do you think is the major problem facing Maryland today?"
Yet somehow, answer after answer seemed to be cast in the same mold, each complaint catching some echoes of the ones that came before.
"Corruption in high offices."
"Taxes a crime."
"Taxes too high."
"Integrity of those soliciting votes for office."
"Exorbitant taxes, especially the property tax."
In all, 25 of th 117 people who bothered to answer Toth's questionnaire cited the state's besmirched image as a center of corruption; another 20 complained about "excessive of inequitable taxes," as questionnaire coordinator Dustin Finney characterized it.
But of course, the next question is, "So what?" Where does this leave us if, as Toth readily concedes, the questionnaire has absolutely no statistical validity? So what, if the answers to this and the other 14 questions are no more than broad guidelines to the sentiments of Toth's 35,000 constituents in Cabin John, Potomac, and Gaithersburg?
Toth herself provides the answers: "It gives me a sense of priorities; it gives me ideas for legislation."
It will probably not affect her votes on many issues this year, or any year, she adds - but it will help her stay in touch with the people she represents.
Toth has become one of a growing number of delegates - nobody really knows how many - who are supplanting their weekly teas or town meetings or question-and-answer nights with informal polls. These are structured a dozen different unscientific ways. Some are mailed to contributors, others dropped in random mailboxes, but more and more are finding their way into constituent's hands.
"This gives us a sense of what our constituency is thinking and talking about," said Marily Goldwater who, with the other Democratic delegates from the 16th District - Republican Sen. Howard Denis was not included - sent out 1,625 questionnaires to find out what people thought about legalization of laetrile, restoration of the death penalty, and banning throw-away bottles, among other things.
(In case you're interested, the feelings on laetrile and the death penalty were about evenly divided in the Bethesda-Glen Echo-West Chevy Chase District, but a thumping three-quarters of the 244 respondents liked the throw-away ban.)
Acknowledging that the questions were somewhat eclectic, Goldwater said that the queries were "things that had come up at our monthly town meetings, things we got letters or telephone calls about."
Lucille Maurer, who with the other delegates and Sen. C. Lawrence Wiser of her Kensington-Wheaton area precinct is sending out a poll to 23,000 people - every household that has a registered voter - said that her questions were designed "to be as neutral as possible."
The ideas for the questions come at times from the questions-and-answer sessions Maurer has with delegates at coffees in her district. "There's a lot of concern about the tax program," she said. "And there are a lot of questions about Metro."
So some of these questions get included in the poll which the 19th district delegates send out. They are still getting the answers from the latest survey, so the results of the survey have not been finally tabulated.
But once again, what can a disembodied group of figures, or two-line written responses to questions, tell a legislator that face-to-face meetings with their constituents can't?
"Constituent communication like this is part of the process of keeping informed," Maurer said. "Sometimes something like this can give you a sense of direction. I don't take (the survey) as an indication of how I should vote so much as an indication of where there are problems, what concerns need to be addressed."
"What they effect," she continued, "is your attitude toward problems, and the nature of how you go about making decisions. They don't affect your position on Bill XYZ at a particular time . . . but they do give you broad clues to what most people are thinking."