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Writing to Legislators

Individuals and groups send thousands of messages to lawmakers during each legislative session. At the national level, Congressional representatives receive thousands of letters, phone calls, and emails each week. Their topics range from agriculture to workplace protections. To manage the workload, national legislators (or “Members”) have a team of staff who collect, categorize and respond to constituent mail.

State lawmakers, on the other hand, have little or no help to handle constituent correspondence and phone calls. Only 26 states provide year-round personal staff to legislators, and other states provide shared or session-only personal staff to legislators. State legislators with their own businesses often draw on those resources to support their legislative work.

Despite the volume of legislative mail, advocates can still send messages to their elected officials that will impact their legislators’ votes. Lawmakers typically use their incoming mail to judge the importance of pending legislation to their constituents.

The New Electronic Paradigm: In response to some security issues with postal mail to members of Congress, all mail is now first routed to scanning facilities that can delay delivery for weeks, if not months. Consequently, like many institutions, congressional offices now process most communications electronically. To send email messages, advocates can make use of the FARE Action Center or through a legislator’s web site via congress.gov.

Social Media: Most legislators also have Facebook, Twitter and other social media vehicles to communicate with their constituents. Following them and commenting on their postings are effective means of building visibility and credibility with the office.

Email & Letters: Using either channel, there are still some good tips to keep in mind for your communications:

Use proper forms of address when writing to any government official and spell their name correctly. Sometimes simple names can cause big problems. At the office of former Congressman Craig James, dozens of letters arrived addressed to Congressman James Craig. Addressing should also be to “The Honorable_______”

Use personal stationery or letterhead from your organization (if sending postal mail.)

Identify yourself as a constituent and mention the state, district, and city or county in which you are a voter.

Identify yourself within the community. Inform your elected official if you are affiliated with a local group and whether you work with the legislator’s constituents. Your message will have more weight if the legislator knows that you are involved as a community leader (e.g., establishing support groups).

State your purpose for writing in the first paragraph. Clearly state what issue or bill you are writing about, and what position or action you urge the legislator to take.

Identify the specific issue or bill. Since thousands of bills are introduced in every legislative session, legislators cannot be expected to know which bill you are writing about unless you reference it as clearly as possible. If possible, mention the bill number, its title, and the original sponsor (author) and where it is in the legislative process.

Be brief. Focus on one subject. Try to keep the letter to one page if typewritten and two pages if it is handwritten.

Personalize your letter. Avoid the look of a form letter. Use your own words and explain how an issue will affect you and others in your community. Personalized letters have a greater impact on decisionmakers.

Explain your position clearly. Be informed about the issue and describe how it affects you personally. Use local examples. Real stories about people – especially constituents – make a strong impression on legislators.

Mention prior meeting with the lawmaker. If you have previously met with the legislator, mention it in your letter.

Write when the issue is current. Your advocacy will have the strongest impact when a legislator must make a decision about a bill, such as when it is scheduled for a vote in committee or on the floor of the chamber.

Be aware of your legislator’s voting record. Avoid embarrassments such as asking her to support a bill she authored, or asking him to oppose a bill he co-sponsored. In order to learn how your lawmaker stands on an issue, visit their website or use other advocacy research tools.

Ask for a response. Seek a commitment from your legislators on your issue. Urge them to champion, co-sponsor, support, oppose, or take some other action with respect to a bill, and request that they explain their position to you.

Be reasonable and courteous. Don’t ask for the impossible or issue ultimatums. A lawmaker will not always support your views. If this happens, agree to disagree – that legislator might support you on some other issue at another time. Conversely, if you threaten, that lawmaker may be alienated by your tactics and vote against you regardless of the issue.

Don’t become a “pen pal” or a constant letter writer to a legislator. If you write too often, your credibility may suffer, and the legislator and/or staff may perceive your constant correspondence as harassing. Less is more.

Be appreciative. Thank lawmakers for their attention to your issue and for their consideration of your views. When an elected official helps you on some matter, be sure to follow up with a thank you note.

Follow email letter writing rules. If you use email, keep your correspondence to a few short paragraphs. Be certain to identify yourself within the community so that the legislator will recognize that you are a constituent or that you work with a local organization. Include your mailing address.

Inform your FARE and other advocates about your contacts with legislators, and share copies of letters that you receive from lawmakers as a result of your contacts. The community’s awareness of your relationships with legislators will enhance their efforts in the capitol.