You’ve probably noticed that ConservationAdvocate.org doesn’t provide an online form where you can simply enter your contact information and automatically email your legislators. Why? They are not as effective as a personal communication from a constituent.
These automatic systems do offer a quick and easy way to voice our opinions. When a legislator receives thousands of these automatically generated emails on an issue, it allows him/her to get a general feel for the opinions of their constituents. However, legislators and their staff put a far greater importance on personal calls and letters. Each legislator is different, so we can’t make a general statement about whether paper letters, emails, or phone calls are the best way to contact your own legislator. Remember though, making it personal matters!
Calling your Legislator
When you call your legislator’s office, you will likely speak with the receptionist or front desk staff. Identify yourself as a constituent and ask to speak to the staff member who deals with the specific issue you’re calling about (e.g. environmental issues, community development issues, etc.). Remember, talking to staff members is extremely important. The legislator often relies on his/her staff for input when it comes to decisions like how to vote on an issue, whether to co-sponser a bill, and what events to attend. Legislators deal with hundreds, even thousands, of bills each session and generally don’t have long periods of time to dedicate to any one subject or person. They simply can’t be an expert in everything and must rely on their staff to provide pertinent information and keep track of public opinion. Staff have more time to focus on a specific issue, and often can be the most effective people to talk to.
When you are directed to the appropriate staffer, again introduce yourself and identify yourself as a constituent. Ask the staff person what the legislator’s position is on the issue. If they are in agreement with your position, thank the staff person for the support. If they do not support your position or have no position on the issue, briefly state why your position is important. Stay positive and professional. Even if the legislator’s position is not what you had hoped, thank the staffer for his or her time. Ask for an opportunity to follow up with additional information, especially if the legislator has not taken a position on the issue. The goal is to retain a good relationship with the staffer and the legislator’s office.
If you are directed to voice mail, leave a clear message identifying yourself, why you are calling, and asking he/she to return your call. If you are calling as part of an organization, state this too. For example, “My name is Joe Brown. As a member of the ABC land trust, I know the importance of conservation funding to York County and so I am calling to ask Senator A to support Keystone Funding in the new budget. Please call me back at 555-555-5555.”
Give a clear ask
Give a brief and clear ask for the legislator. For example: “I would like the legislator to vote for bill 123″ or “will the senator tell his party leadership that this bill is very important and should be voted of committee?” or “please ask the representative sign on as a sponsor to the bill.”
The staff person may not be familiar with the issue and may ask for more information. If you feel comfortable doing so, be prepared with background information and share it with him/her.
Remember, you don’t have to be an expert! It is also OK to say you don’t have the information right now and will follow up with it after your initial call. This is a great way to build a relationship with the staff member. You can also direct him/her to appropriate sources of information, such as ConservationAdvocate.org.
Calling your legislator is very important and can influence how he/she votes. But your impact shouldn’t end there. After the vote has occurred, call your legislator. Thank them for voting in support of your position or let them know you are disappointed that they didn’t. This let’s legislators know that their constituents are indeed paying attention to they vote and holds them accountable.
If there is another opportunity to vote on the issue, ask the legislator to reconsider his/her position. For example: “I am very upset Senator A did not vote for the conservation funding in the committee vote. Natural lands are an important characteristic of our community and I don’t want to see the areas where my children and so many other families play lost. When bill 123 comes before the whole Senate, I hope he will vote in favor of the bill.”
Personal Emails & Letters
Personal emails and letters can also be effective if they are done correctly. As stated earlier, automated emails can help reinforce large scale opposition but when it comes to making a real impact on legislators, a personal touch is imperative. A few tips:
- address your legislator as The Honorable First Name Last Name
- the salutation should read Dear Representative/Senator Last Name
- be concise and clearly state what your position is and what you’re asking the legislator to do
- personalize your message – explain how the issue impacts you, your organization and your community
- be respectful and positive – even if you disagree, a polite and informative tone is best
- provide your full contact information and let your legislator know that you’d appreciate a response
- followup with a phone call if you don’t hear from your legislator in a timely manner
Build & Strengthen Relationships
Get to know your legislator and their staff. Learn who focuses on your area(s) of concern, and how the legislator’s point of view fits into this. For example, if your legislator is focused on community development, you would then know it is a good idea to talk about how land preservation helps create sustainability in your community.
Also, learn what influence your legislator has in the General Assembly. Know which committees (Senate, House) on which he or she serves and any leadership roles that might be held.
What if you don’t yet have a relationship with your legislator and his/her staff? This doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference and there’s no time like the present to start building that relationship! [See Adopt a Legislator for more tips on building this relationship.]
Although we often feel very strongly about an issue, and may feel angry about how a legislator has voted, being polite and professional is always important. Do not attack the legislator’s position or yell at the staff person. This won’t get you very far. Instead, calmly and clearly state that you are disappointed that the legislator voted in a certain way and state why.