“Contact your legislator!” An action called upon us so very often.
But how? Call or snail mail? When is the best time? Does anyone even read form emails? Even as a policy professional, I had little insights into these seemingly obvious questions. For this very reason, I thought it’d be helpful to talk to a few friends who work in federal and state legislative offices to get some answers!
I hope you find these tips helpful! They are pretty US specific, and of course may not be 100% representative of your specific legislator. Special thanks to friends who were so willing and open to share their knowledge and experiences. (I won’t name who they were or who they worked for out of professional courtesy.)
1. Meet your legislators at their level on communications – what do they like?
First of all – if you learned the way your legislator likes to receive constituent feedback based on their responsiveness, stick to that mode.
2. That said, in order of effectiveness generally:
- in-person meeting during office/coffee hours (especially if you don’t know them already)
- phone call with request for response or call back from office
- personal, non-form email
- personal letter
- form email (unless you know a lot of other folks are emailing too – the strength comes with volume)
3. “But…does my letter/email/fax/pigeongram actually reach anybody?”
Ugh – this is a question I wondered a lot. Often constituent mail feels similar to job applications in the sense that they both go straight into a blackhole. But friends assured me that yes (!) – your communication does reach actual people: if not the legislator, often a staff member. (No guarantee on your pigeon post though.)
Similarly, you may meet with a staff member during in-person constituent hours as well. This is ok; staff members are often the ones doing the behind-the-scenes policy work. (As a researcher for a government agency, I’ve personally received requests from legislative staff based on constituent communications.) Many offices do tally and monitor all policy correspondences to gauge public opinion, but generally only if they came from the constituents the legislator represents.
4. About those personal letters…
Everyone loves snail mail…but electronic communications are easiest to file and track. The volume of paper a legislative office receives can become extremely overwhelming, and it may mean your communication ends up in the blue file bin.
On the other hand, a flood of paper mail can be striking. A friend who used to work at a US senator’s office recalled “when literal crates of letters on gun control would be wheeled into the office after a mass shooting…the office definitely took notice.”
5. Have a specific ask.
It’s tempting to go on and on about why it’s important for your rep/senator/councilor to address climate change or racial inequity, but what exactly do you want your representative to do? Whether it’s to sign a particular bill that’s up for a vote, propose an idea that you’ve seen done elsewhere, increase/decrease funding for a project, write a letter of testimony in support of a bill so it doesn’t “die in committee”*, a specific ask gives your legislator something concrete to act upon.
*A friend explains it this way: “[Often] there isn’t much we could do with just letters of support for bills not under our purview as committee chair. It’s important to change the ask from generally supporting a bill to asking your Rep or Senator to write a letter of testimony in support of the bill to the Committee Co-Chairs where the bill resides. Letters of testimony to the Co-Chairs from other legislators in big numbers is one of the strongest strategies to get a bill out of committee [to the floor for consideration].”
6. But even a good ask means very little if the timing isn’t right.
Be sure to contact your legislator the week before a bill comes up for a vote, and if possible the day of the vote before 10am. “Timing is as important as the message itself,” a friend says, “this is why organizations with real time action alerts are so effective in mobilizing their coalitions.” (Act when you receive those alerts; pinning a message to read later might mean you’ll miss the crucial window of time when your voice is needed!)
Congress and each state run on their unique legislative schedules, so get to know when your legislature is in session! For example, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) has a handy map that’s updated each day. (Of course COVID has thrown a wrench into everything, so this year will not be representative of how your legislature typically operate. Read more about that here.)
7. Expect a reply, maybe
Especially with smaller offices, it is extremely difficult to respond to every single constituent letter on policy (aka, non-personal) matter. Plus, there may or may not be a relationship between responsiveness and action. (Sometimes a responsive staff corresponds to an actionable boss; other times it’s a reflection of all talk little action. Some offices care more about doing than talking, etc.)
8. So instead of tracking replies…
Keep your representative accountable by following more concrete measures like their voting record. For example in Massachusetts, I like to use The Environmental League of Massachusetts (ELM) Legislative Scorecard.
9. The power is in the masses!
Join a group to push for an issue, whether it’s as part of a company, a professional trade association, or an advocacy group…the power of a coalition is always going to be more than that of an individual.
Don’t have time to dedicate to a group on an ongoing basis? That’s ok too. Organize a call-in campaign, participate in a group letter writing session, forward a petition for more people to sign…you get the idea. Maximize the voices!
10. Responsible citizenship, automated
If being a good constituent sounds like work, it is! Help yourself out by “automating” this work somewhat: compile and save the contact information of your legislators (and their aids, if you can), get on their email lists for their townhall schedules, sign up for action alerts from an advocacy organization you support, use an app/website (Countable, Democracy.io, Resistbot, etc), make the right thing the easy thing to do.
Now go forth with your new gained knowledge and make your voice heard!