You’ve probably noticed that WeConservePA doesn’t provide an online form where you can enter your contact information and automatically email your legislators. Why? They are not as effective as personal communication from a constituent.
These automatic systems do offer a quick and easy way to voice our opinions. When a legislator receives thousands of these automatically generated emails on an issue, it allows them to get a general feel for the opinions of their constituents. However, legislators and their staff put far greater importance on personal calls and letters. Each legislator is different, so we can’t make a general statement about whether paper letters, emails, or phone calls are the best way to contact your legislator. Remember though: making it personal matters!
Calling your Legislator
When you call your legislator’s office, you will likely speak with the receptionist or front desk staff. Identify yourself as a constituent and ask to speak to the staff member who deals with the specific issue you’re calling about (such as environmental issues or community development issues). Remember, talking to staff members is extremely important because legislators often rely on their staff for input when making decisions like how to vote on an issue, whether to co-sponsor a bill and what events to attend. Legislators deal with hundreds, even thousands, of bills each session and generally don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to a single issue or person. They simply can’t be an expert in everything and must rely on their staff to provide pertinent information and keep track of public opinion. On the other hand, staff have more time to focus on a specific issue and are often the best individuals to talk to about a particular matter.
When you direct the appropriate staffer, introduce yourself, and identify yourself as a constituent. Ask the staff person what the legislator’s position is on the issue. If they agree with your position, thank the staff person for the support. If they do not support it or have no stance on the issue, briefly state why your position is relevant. Stay positive and professional. Even if the legislator’s position is not what you had hoped, thank the staffer for their time. Ask for an opportunity to follow up with additional information, especially if the legislator has not taken a position on the issue. The goal is to retain a good relationship with the staffer and the legislator’s office.
If you are directed to voice mail, leave a clear message identifying yourself, why you are calling, and asking them to return your call. If you are calling as part of an organization, state this too. For example, “My name is Joe Brown. As a member of the ABC land trust, I know the importance of conservation funding to York County, and so I am calling to ask Senator A to support Keystone Funding in the new budget. Please call me back at 555-555-5555.”
Give a clear ask
Give a brief and clear ask for the legislator. For example: “I would like the legislator to vote for bill 123,″ or “Will the senator tell his party leadership that this bill is very important and should be voted out of committee?” or “Please ask the representative to sign on as a sponsor to the bill.”
The staff person may not be familiar with the issue and may ask for more information. If you feel comfortable doing so, be prepared with background information and share it with them.
Remember, you don’t have to be an expert! It is also OK to say you don’t have the information right now and will follow up with it after your initial call. This is a great way to build a relationship with the staff member. You can also direct them to appropriate sources of information, such as WeConservePA.org/advocate/.
Calling your legislator is very important and can influence how they vote. But your impact shouldn’t end there. After the vote has occurred, call your legislator. Thank them for voting in support of your position or let them know you are disappointed that they didn’t. This lets legislators know that their constituents are indeed paying attention to how they vote and holds them accountable.
If there is another opportunity to vote on the issue, ask the legislator to reconsider their position. For example: “I am very upset Senator A did not vote for the conservation funding in the committee vote. Natural lands are an important characteristic of our community, and I don’t want us to lose the areas where my children and so many other families play. When bill 123 comes before the whole Senate, I hope she will vote in favor of the bill.”
Personal Emails & Letters
Personal emails and letters can also be effective if they are done correctly. As stated earlier, automated emails can help reinforce large scale opposition but when it comes to making a real impact on legislators, a personal touch is imperative. A few tips:
- Address your legislator as The Honorable First Name Last Name
- The salutation should read Dear Representative/Senator Last Name
- Be concise and clearly state what your position is and what you’re asking the legislator to do
- Personalize your message – explain how the issue impacts you, your organization and your community
- Be respectful and positive – even if you disagree, a polite and informative tone is best
- Provide your full contact information and let your legislator know that you’d appreciate a response
- Follow up with a phone call if you don’t hear from your legislator in a timely manner
Build & Strengthen Relationships
Get to know your legislator and their staff. Learn who focuses on your area(s) of concern, and how the legislator’s point of view fits into this. For example, if your legislator is focused on community development, you would then know it is a good idea to talk about how land preservation helps create sustainability in your community.
What if you don’t yet have a relationship with your legislator and their staff? This doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference and there’s no time like the present to start building that relationship! [See Connect With a Legislator for more tips on building this relationship.]
Although we often feel very strongly about an issue and may feel angry about how a legislator has voted, being polite and professional is always important. Do not attack the legislator’s position or yell at the staff person. It won’t get you very far. Instead, calmly and clearly state that you are disappointed that the legislator voted in a certain way and state why.