At Bothering Your Elected Officials

So, it’s been a while since the last time we spoke. After this disastrous election cycle, words didn’t feel like they were sufficient anymore. However, after a few weeks and some historical context, I’ve realized that words are all that matter. I’m gonna keep writing while the world burns, and I hope you will too.

I’ve decided to pick this blog back up again. I’ll be updating weekly, and I’ll dedicate one post a month to political issues. First up: how to get your elected officials to actually listen to you.

A lot of people think it’s enough to just tweet your displeasure at your senators’/representative’s/governor’s/President-elect’s Twitter handle and call it a day, but interns ignore those mentions or delete them almost immediately. Some people who have worked in government say letter writing campaigns aren’t as helpful as they seem either; politicians have a form letter response for almost everything, and it’s difficult for words to make an impact when nobody actually reads them. According to former Congressional staffer Emily Ellsworth, the best way to reach your elected officials is to call them on the phone.

phone anxiety.jpg

Image created by Lucy Anh Doan at happymonsters.tumblr.com

Now, if you’re anything like me, that last sentence really stressed you out. I hate making phone calls, especially if I think that a confrontation will happen when somebody picks up. My threshold for what I consider “confrontation” is pretty low, too: I’ve been known to avoid calling to reschedule doctor’s appointments because I’m afraid they’ll be disappointed in me. However, calling your elected officials to express a political opinion isn’t a confrontation–it’s really more like leaving a voicemail, but with a real person instead of a computer. The process is simple and not scary at all. Let’s begin.

What is not sucking? Not sucking, in the realm of calling your elected officials, is defined as finding someone who actually represents you in government, calling their office, and expressing your opinion in such a way that the person on the other end of the line will pass on the message.

  1. Think about the issue you’re concerned about. Is it a federal, state or local issue? Is it related to a specific law or bill? Whom will it affect? This will determine who it is you need to call. If it’s a local issue, like concerns about your neighborhood’s trash pickup, your child’s school or your city’s electrical grid, you need to find your city or county representative–probably a councillor, mayor or commissioner, but also maybe a head of some local department, like the county Superintendent of Schools.

If it’s a state issue, like a state income tax, current state law or a bill in your state’s House or Senate, then you probably need to call someone at the state level. I tend to only call legislators at this level and above, like state representatives and state senators (who are DIFFERENT, it’s important to note, from representatives and senators at the federal level), but sometimes it’s a better idea to call the office of your state’s governor or Supreme Court. If you need a refresher on which branch of government does what at the state level, there’s a good guide to that here.

If it’s a federal issue–something that will affect people all over the country in some way–then you need to call your federal representatives, again focusing on legislators. Sometimes it’s best to start with your local government and work your way up, like Lee-Anne Walters and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha did when they were first concerned about lead poisoning in Flint, Michigan.

2. Find your representatives. If you live in Colorado, calling an Oregon senator and telling them about your positions on the issues probably won’t do a whole lot of good. Public servants are obligated to listen to their constituents, and you’re only someone’s constituent if you live in the area they represent. Here’s how you can find who represents you:

  • In the United States, every state has two federal Senators. You can find out who those are by Googling “[your state] Senators”. Easy.
  • You also have a federal representative–every state is allotted a number of these based on their state’s population. You can find out who your district’s federal Representative is here. Remember, you have only one of these.
  • You also have one representative each in your state’s House and Senate, respectively. This is where things can get complicated, because you might be in different districts for the federal House, your state Senate and your state House. Googling “who are my [your state] state representatives” will usually pull up results of .gov websites that have search engines where you can plug in your address and find out what district(s) you live in and who represents each of them. For Florida, where I live, those sites are here and here.
  • Depending on where you live, you might also have a county or city commissioner, a city council, a mayor, a school board and/or any number of other people and groups who manage things at the local level. Doing a number of Google searches like “[your city] city council”, “[your county] county commission”, “[your city] waste management”, etc will help you find out who you need to contact about which issues.

There should be a phone number associated with every one of the representatives you find during your search. In the case of federal representatives, there are usually two: one Washington, D.C. office, and at least one local office in the place they represent. When in doubt, call the local office. They get fewer calls, so your voice will stand out more.

3. Research. What is this person’s current stance on the issue you’re calling them about? If you can’t find one after searching a number of trusted sources, search for their voting records on related issues. If all else fails, have a look at their political party’s platform and assume that it will probably be close to that. You want to know what you’re in for before you get on the phone–will you be encouraging someone, or trying to persuade them to

wrong.gif

Snopes, probably, when you fact-check Drumpf quotes. Gif from Scrubs.

change their mind? More importantly, what are the facts about this issue? Be very careful about the sources you use to find information–if something seems outrageous or fishy, check Snopes before you go off.

4. Script yourself. Going into a phone call cold always results in disaster for me, so I tend to write down a couple of key points to make before I dial. Sometimes other people who think like you do will share scripts they used when calling their own reps. Try to reference a specific law or action that’s making headlines–“I’m calling to ask about Senator [blank]’s stance on the First Amendment Defense Act” is going to get you a more specific, useful answer than “I’m calling to ask about Senator [blank’s] stance on gay rights”.

5. Make the call. Again, the person answering the phone is not going to argue with you. Usually they are interns or staffers who have been trained to do their jobs as inoffensively as possible. As long as your tone stays civil, all they will do is take down your message to the representative and share it with them at the next opportunity. Most of them even thank you after you’ve finished expressing your opinion.

6. Talk about the call. Share the script you used. Let people in your district or state know that you’re calling your representative about an issue you care about, because once other people know it’s an issue, they’ll probably call too. (This is part of why it’s so important to research before you call!) One call to a federal Senator makes a tiny impact; lots of calls make a big one. If you want action taken on your issue, encourage others to call about it too.

7. Call again. No, not now. Not today. This week sometime, maybe. Definitely next week, though.

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It’s almost too appropriate to include a Leslie Knope image in this post.

 

Make it a goal to contact the representative you called regularly until they take a stance on your issue and take action. Once that issue is resolved, find another issue, start calling about that and talk about calling about that. Lots of tiny actions become parts of big movements.

Got opinions for me? Want to tell me when you call your own representatives? Tweet at me @ShelbyBouck.

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