Community Resources: Contacting Officials
August 9, 2021
Trapped in a toxic relationship with student loan debt? Feeling the impending doom of soon having to financially support a large, rapidly aging population? Big Oil lobbies eating away at your optimism? Don’t we all have the urge to grab our lawmakers, shake them, and calmly state the points of our issue positions. Being able to contact elected officials to voice our concerns or appeal for change is a central function of democracy. The usa.gov website is a useful resource for finding ways and links to contact federal, state, and local elected officials. Your representatives’ official’s website will also generally have various resources that will help put you into contact with them. But with how the constituent-management system works, youth may find it challenging to get into meaningful contact with their representatives, let alone influence their policy beliefs or spur them into action on certain issues.
Inundating an official’s phone lines can force a statement out of the representative by creating a need to clear communication lines. Phone calls to your district state office are more effective than emails, as emails are easily lost amid the large stream that regularly bombard representatives’ inboxes. But no matter the platform, personal and thoughtful is the best way to go. Reading out or pasting scripts from online advocacy groups can make activism easier, but office staff are universally less impressed by low-effort, impersonal third-party activism apps or tools. While easy, most of these messages are boiled down to spam (The OpenGov Foundation, 2017; Victor, 2016). Like a friend request from a stranger whose only info is a Facebook profile picture of a cat. Don’t expect a high-effort response with low-effort outreach.
Congressional offices use constituent relationship management systems, where calls often reach dead ends without identifying information. The use of online petitions and apps to flood an elected official’s inbox, while making activism more popular and accessible, strains already overwhelmed channels of communication (Lapowsky, 2018). According to this Wired article, low-level interns usually bear the brunt of pre-written mass-advocacy calls/emails (the article mentions interns stuffed into closets). After an intern verifies the constituent, they may log the call into the system, but some offices may just tally calls for and against certain issues. Emails, letters, and faxes are usually handled the same way. These communications are then sorted into issue batches, after which senior staffers may prompt legislative correspondents or staff members to form a response (by email). Even then, a study by the Congressional Management Foundation finds that less than 50% of constituents open the response email sent by the congressional office (Lapowsky, 2018). As you can guess, it is unlikely that you’ll get a direct response from your representative.
According to From Voicemails to Votes, a report conducted by The OpenGov Foundation, “staff generally felt that in-person visits, personal letters, and, increasingly, social media were the best tools for being heard by Members of Congress” (The OpenGov Foundation, 2017). Congressional staffers agree that the more effort a constituent puts into their case and the more personal their story, often the better the response (The OpenGov Foundation, 2017). They want to hear those struggles! Preferably in a penned letter! Response rates are higher when contacting officials at the local or state levels (Victor, 2016). Take the opportunity to also get face-to-face contact with your representatives when they decide to hold events such as town halls or q&a sessions in-person or online. Their official website will often post information on any upcoming events (Wellman, 2017). Prepare your questions and arguments beforehand to make the best use of your time. Show how an issue affects you and/or impress them with carefully reasoned arguments.
When contacting officials, show that you have done the research and understand the issue you are advocating a position on. There are many digital tools useful for keeping you updated on legislation or group actions (Wellman, 2017). Quality over quantity! Your best chance at getting your representative to consider your argument is to argue the issue as effectively and as accurately as possible. Yuri Beckleman, deputy chief of staff to representative Mark Takano agrees that “the constituents that put the greatest effort into their communication… are the ones that often get the greatest rewards” (Lapowsky, 2018). Nothing can replace the feeling of meaningful connection.
Changing an elected official’s position on an issue is a slow and frustrating process that will almost always necessitate consistency and long-term commitment. Shortcuts won’t cut it.
Download Emily Colemon’s guide Call the Halls: Contacting Your Representatives the Smart Way here.
Elected Officials: USAGov. Elected Officials | USAGov. https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials.
Lapowsky, I. (2018, February 1). This Is What Congress Does With Your Phone Calls and Emails. Wired.
The OpenGov Foundation. (2018, January 29). 3.3 Staff Perspectives on the Best Ways to Get Heard. Medium, From Voicemails to Votes. https://v2v.opengovfoundation.org/staff-perspectives-on-the-best-ways-to-get-heard-5d30c85eb9f5.
Victor, D. (2016, November 22). Here's Why You Should Call, Not Email, Your Legislators. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/22/us/politics/heres-why-you-should-call-not-email-your-legislators.html
Wellman, M. (2017, January 24). 5 Ways to Contact Your Elected Officials and Make Your Voice Heard. USA Today. Gannett Satellite Information Network. https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2017/01/24/5-ways-to-contact-your-elected-officials-and-make-your-voice-heard/37427477/