Regardless of where you land on the political spectrum, it’s safe to say our country is having a exciting surge of grassroots activation. As an organizer, civics nerd and political junkie, I’m pumped. One of the core principles of our democracy is public participation, and in recent decades we’ve been awash in apathy. So when you contact Congress, which forms of communication have the highest impact?
The short answer is: it ALL matters. Don’t let anyone tell you the form emails you send are worthless, they’re not. Read on for the details.
In order from highest impact, to lowest impact:
Meet with your Member of Congress
Meeting with your Member of Congress is the ultimate way to communicate and influence your elected officials. While getting a meeting with your actual Member of Congress may be a challenge, you can organize a meeting with a member of their staff. Most U.S. Senators have several offices sprinkled throughout your state. These offices are meant to be the eyes and ears in the community, taking your temperature about the issues you care deeply about. These staff then communicate those concerns to the Senators in Washington.
You can simply request a meeting on the website of your Senator or Representative and sit down with their staff for 15-30 minutes. I strongly suggest organizing a group of your friends to join the meeting, focus your “ask”, practice and your voice will be heard loud and clear.
Make a phone call
Did you know that by law offices need to tally how many phone calls they receive on a particular topic? For example, if there are 30 calls in a week about the need for safer cosmetic laws, the staff tallying those calls must brief the Senator on this in their weekly meeting. In recent weeks, there were over 1.5 million phone calls going into Congressional offices, and many changed their votes based on constituent pressure.
Simply call the local or DC phone number for your Member of Congress. A friendly staff member will answer the phone (or you’ll reach a voicemail). Leave your message, tell them that you care deeply about the issue, make sure you ask for their support or opposition to the topic.
Ask a question while they are running for office
Campaign season is a very important time to ask questions of your elected officials. While they are seeking your support, you are the one who holds the cards, and they will listen to you. If you get the commitment from a candidate while they are on the campaign trail, it’s easier to hold their feet to the fire once they are in office.
Send a personal email through the contact form on their webpage
This is a very effective way to weigh in with your elected officials. The personalized nature of the contact form is what sets this type of email apart from “form” emails (read more below). When you fill out the contact forms on the Member’s website, the personalized message will go directly to the staff who work on your issue area. They are the people who are experts in the given subject matter and will be advising the Senator or Representative on how to vote!
Generally speaking, this will also force the staff to send you a letter in response with the Member’s position on the topic at hand.
Join a protest
How many of you have been faced with the question “Does marching in the streets actually do anything“? Joining peaceful protests is very important for a few reasons: it creates a shared sense of community and energizes everyone who is involved. Second, protests like The Women’s March, generate a lot of press, further advancing the message and cause through the media. Protests have been a long-time effective way to get our leaders to change course: the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the environmental movement, the suffragette movement, and beyond.
Send a form email from your favorite organization
Despite what many may say, these emails do matter. Some Congressional offices dismiss generic form letters, but many do not. If the volume is large enough your message will come through to the Member of Congress. This is especially true if it’s matched with other forms of communication like phone calls or lobbyists meetings in DC. When organizations send out emails on a particular cause their goal is two fold, to have you send your thoughts to your representatives and to bolster and support the lobbying they are already doing in Washington.
Finally, these actions are a very important way that organizations can keep you engaged as an advocate in your own community. You stay up to speed on what’s happening in our state and federal government and they allow you to use your voice at key moments in time. Let these great organizations do the hard work for us and activate us when needed.
Post a comment on your representative’s social media accounts
This form of communication is not as high impact, but is fine if you’ve taken some of the other actions listed above.
Send a hand written letter or postcard
This is one of the least effective ways to contact your federal Members of Congress (note that in some states this is still useful, but not for federal offices). There are a few reasons this form of communication isn’t effective, first of which has to do with the lag time of your message getting to your elected official. Congress can move quickly and electronic forms of communication send your message directly to the office. Second, after the anthrax scare all mail needs to be screened for anthrax, further delaying the process. Postcards and letters are much less likely to be translated to relevant staff or Members directly.
Post a comment on your social media accounts
It’s great to share breaking news and how you feel about the state of politics with your friends and family. This however, does very little to change the minds of those who represent you in government. I have some friends who have a policy that for every political Facebook post they make, they will also send an email about the topic to their elected officials.
So in short being engaged matters, your voice counts, and stay persistent.
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