5 Simple Ways to Make Your State Legislator Listen to You
By John F. Triolo, Director of Communications
If you are passionate about a political cause, it can be easy to feel powerless. Legislators are increasingly insulated from the average voter and often feel themselves beholden only to the super-motivated partisan activists in their district. Getting your state representative to give your cause the attention it deserves can be an uphill battle under the best of circumstances—especially if he is on the other side of your issue. It can seem nearly impossible when you lack the proper training and tools to access the legislative process. In fact, in many cases, your representative is counting on his constituents’ limited knowledge of effective political techniques to protect him from “interference” by the voters who elected him. If you aren’t an experienced citizen-lobbyist, your ignorance is his secret weapon in a fight for his political independence.
Here’s the good news: In many cases, despite his belief to the contrary, your state legislator and his staff often have a fairly weak grasp of the political techniques employed by successful citizen-lobbyists. Their ignorance offers you chances to increase the impact of your activities. In some cases, a local politician’s experience with and reliance on areas where they have more skill, such as retail politics, actually makes them more susceptible to the techniques of activists citizens working to promote a particular legislative cause or agenda.
What follows is a list of 5 simple techniques for engaging with your state legislator in a way that will make him more inclined to listen to your concerns.
1) Always call rather than email or write. In most cases, you won’t get legislator on the phone, but sometimes you will. When you email or right, you can usually guarantee that the legislator will never see more than a brief summary of your message prepared by an equally uninterested aide. Calling also gives you a chance to engage with whoever is answering the phones, making you known to them and acquainting them with your issue (in many cases, this will be the first time they’ve heard of it). Always say that you are a constituent and give your address to confirm. Remain calm and collected but be firm rather than deferential—you are one of their bosses, they know it (especially in states with full-time legislatures), make sure they know you know it too. Don’t make threats and don’t promise benefits, but rather leave them with an impression of you as an educated, energetic voter who is willing to work to see his cause succeed legislatively.
2) Always visit rather than call. If possible, visit your legislators in person whenever you have an opportunity. This can be done at their offices in the statehouse or the district offices kept by many state legislators. Legislators may have more political experience than you do, but they are only people and often people-pleasers too. It is much easier to extract hasty promises from a legislator in person because every cell in his body is rebelling against the idea of answering you with a flat-out “no.” If you sense any hint of weakness or irresolution, being there in person will allow you to force the issue and try to pin him down. It is best to go with a witness, in case the office-holder does commit to anything. Even if you don’t talk directly to the legislator, it can be just as important to cultivate a relationship with his staff. At the very least, you want them to remember you and your issue. It is worthwhile to visit even a friendly legislator, in addition to those who are neutral or oppose your cause. While there will be less for you to convince him of, it often helps to strengthen the spines of politicians to know they have supporters backing them up on an issue.
3) Talk to your legislator around town. Depending on the size of your legislative district it is likely that you live very close to your representative. There is a good chance that you know where he gets his morning coffee, picks up his dry-cleaning, or goes to church. If your daily life around town overlaps with his there is absolutely nothing wrong with approaching your elected official and bringing up an issue or piece of legislation you consider important. Politicians are less likely than usual to be on their guard outside of a political context and there is a good chance your interaction will be more meaningful. Seeing you living your life “in the district” will force him to mentally situate you in his constituency—more so than simply calling and telling a staffer your address. The personal interaction during an errand will also reinforce the fact that you are not an atomized individual who can be safely ignored, but a part of the community with a vibrant social network which you help influence. Remember, be polite and non-threatening and never approach him at his home unless you are already a friend or neighbor.
4) Coordinate your efforts with other activists. If you are working for a cause there is a good chance that others in your area share your passion and interest. Work with these people to maximize the effect of your lobbying efforts. For example, if you are thinking about calling your legislator to voice an opinion about a particular bill it would be helpful to organize calls for the same day with several of your like-minded friends. Better yet, organize the calls for the same 2-3 hour period. 7 calls in the space of two hours will have a much heavier psychological impact on the person answering phones than the same number of calls spread out over the day. It is important, if possible, to create the impression that the phone is ringing “off the hook” about an issue. Even if the staff is carefully keeping a log of calls, the impression of volume your group creates can be more important than raw numbers. Similarly, it is better to show up with a group to lobby your legislator than by yourself. Better yet, if you can get together a succession of small groups over the course of a few days, you will create the impression that the pressure on this issue never lets up. Legislators and their staffs are human like the rest of us and how people feel about an issue is often a more important factor in decision making than what they think or know. Closely coordinated action from a small group can create an irrational conviction in a lawmaker and his staff that an important section of the electorate is pushing very hard on a particular issue. Just as a great part of electoral politics depends on managing the expectations and perceptions of voters, so lobbying often depends on skilled management of the expectations and perceptions of office holders.
In order for the strategy of coordination to work, you will need people with whom to work. Probably, family members, close friends, or acquaintances from your place of worship share your views on public policy and want to help you. If you don’t have these people or don’t have enough of them, don’t give up. Local or statewide organizations with an interest in your issue may be able to put you in touch with like-minded members in your community. There is also a chance that members of one of the local political party committees will be interested in helping you push your agenda.
5) Focus on specific legislative items. When you contact your legislator, one of the quickest ways to be dismissed is approaching your issue in an abstract, general way. For example, it is not enough to ask your legislator to be pro-life. Instead, you need to ask him to oppose, pursue, or promote some specific piece of life-related legislation. If you are supporting or opposing a bill already under consideration, be prepared with the bill number and committee to which it has been assigned. Often you can look up bill information on your legislature’s website—if not, you can usually check with the office of the legislature’s clerk. If there is not a specific bill already under consideration which you want to address, be prepared with model legislation to show your representative’s staff. Do as much of the work for them as possible—this will make them more inclined to act if they are on your side and more inclined to take you seriously if they are neutral or opposed. Research on bills can often be conducted with the help of statewide advocacy groups interested in your issue. These groups are also a good source of model legislation.
The legislative process can be long and laborious, especially for everyday people with limited time to pursue the policy results they care about. Many politicians are essentially professional office holders, expert at securing their political independence from the people who elected them. As a passionate citizen-activist you may not be able to bring all the tools of a professional lobbyist to the task of promoting your favored issue with your legislator but that doesn’t mean you are powerless. All but the most bold, well-resourced, or intelligent legislators are as susceptible to having their perceptions managed as the rest of us. They care about being well-liked, often more than the average person, and can be very conflict adverse in person. They rely on the advice of overworked staffers with whom you can cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship. Much as they might wish to present a super-human image, Legislators are people just like the rest of us and subject to the same weaknesses. Knowing these weaknesses (and learning their strengths) and having a plan can help normal people influence the process in ways they might not have thought possible.