Communication with Elected Officials

Believe it or not, your elected officials want to hear from you!

Often people think that communicating with their elected officials is too difficult or a waste of time.  This could not be further from the truth. Elected officials want to hear from their con­stituents. In fact, they often base their voting decisions on the feedback they receive from the voters at home.

Your elected officials were elected to represent you. To be an effective representative of your views, your elected officials need to know where you stand on the issues. As a voter, and especially if you are an employer, you have a powerful voice in shaping the outcome of policies, ordinances, and regulations. Elected officials want to be reelected. Therefore, they have a self-interest in listening to con­stituents who are willing to take the time to express their views, especially on how issues will affect voters, businesses, and associations in their district.

The power to change government is in your hands!

Personal contact is the most effective form of communication. In fact, the best way to get the attention of an elected official and his/her staff is for a voter—especially an employer—to contact the office personally by letter or telephone call. Be sure you have handy some pertinent information about your coalition. Elected officials are very concerned about jobs—especially jobs in their districts —and the impact of policies and ordinances and regulations on those jobs. Therefore, some simple statistics can be powerful weapons. For example, if you are an employer, how many employees do you have in their district? Including this kind of information in your communications can greatly increase the impact. Also, are there other plants, subsidiaries, or outlets of your company in other parts of the state? If so, is someone in that location also taking the time to get to know and communicate with other elected officials?

Finally, find out your elected official’s positions on issues of concern to you and request that your elected officials put your name on their postal mailing or email lists, so you know what they are doing.

Communicating by mail with your elected officials

If you want your elected officials to represent your views, you must first let them know where you stand. Elected officials and their staff pay close attention to their mail—especially mail from constituents. Share with officials your thoughts and opinions on an issue in a well-written, thoughtful letter. Three things to keep in mind as you write:

keep it local, keep it personal, and keep it concise.

Your elected officials will take note. Here are some letter-writing tips:

Writing an Effective Letter

Elected officials cannot possibly know how every issue they support or oppose will affect you or your business. A well-written letter will often help elected officials understand these critical elements of pending legislation. If you are not able to personally meet or speak with your elected official, a letter can effectively deliver your message before he or she takes a position for or against a particular issue.

•     Handwritten letters receive the most attention and carry the most weight.  Be sure they are legible!

•    As you write, remember to keep it local, keep it personal, and keep it concise.

•    If possible, write your letter on coalition letterhead. While length is not necessarily important, anything longer than one page may be ignored.

•    All elected officials are addressed as “The Honorable…”

•    When addressing your letter, it is best to use room numbers if they use them as a part of their address.

•    If you are not sure who your elected official is, you can go to the institution’s main web page and search for your district. If that’s not clear, call the main number and ask for help in determining who the elected official is who represents you.

•    Begin your letter by identifying the specific issue, ordinance, or policy, you are writing about, using the official ordinance numbers. As a rule, you should never write about more than one issue per letter. If you want to include more, write a second letter.

•    Use facts to validate your letter, providing specific examples of how the issue will impact you or your business and employees. The more local you make the argu­ment, the more persuasive it will be.

•    Clearly state the action you would like your elected official to take on the issue.  For example, “please vote against ordinance 215,” and ask for a reply that clearly states what actions the elected official plans to take.

•    Always include your return address with your zip code! Elected officials will only respond if they know you are a constituent.

•    Encourage others in your organization or in the business community to write as well.

•    Use your own words. Avoid slogans or phrases from newsletters or form letters.

•    Do not overstate your case. Exaggeration will only discredit you.

•    Be constructive and reasonable. Many proposed solutions to issues try to fix a “problem” that doesn’t exist. But if a problem does exist, and the proposed solution just takes the wrong approach, don’t deny the existence of the problem­; suggest what you believe would be the right solution.

•    Express your opinion strongly—but never get personal, never threaten, and never be offensive. And don’t mention Election Day­. Elected officials are already well aware of the political implica­tions of disagreeing with constituents.

•    Be timely. Write early, before an issue becomes big news and before the elected official takes a position. This allows time for a reply. If you are writing about an impending vote, make sure your letter arrives before the vote. Your insights will be of little help if the vote was yesterday.

•    Ask your elected official to explain his/her position on the issue in his/her reply. You are entitled to know how and why these men and women take a particular position.

•    Assure them you will be following the issue and how they act on it.

•    When your elected officials vote the way you asked them to, drop them a quick line to let them know you appreciate it. If you worked with a member of the staff, include their name. This may guarantee the member sees the letter. Follow-up is the often overlooked secret to developing truly constructive relationships.

What To Do if You Receive a Non-Committal Response

  • Do not be surprised if you get a noncommittal reply. Many times elected officials will not take a position on an issue until the last minute. A “strong, neutral position” is the easiest posture for an elected official to assume because it requires no research and no thought and is supposed to alienate the fewest voters. Thus, your best strategy is to try to educate your member on the implications of the program, ordinance, or policy, and how it will affect you.
    • Write back if the reply did not answer your questions, was ambiguous or evaded the question by claiming the fate of the issue is in someone else’s hands, such as a committee on which that elected official does not sit (that may be true, but your elected official should still tell you where he or she stands).
    • In your brief follow-up letter or phone call, make two or three good points and restate your position and request. Remind your elected official you are following the issue.

What To Do if You Disagree with Your Elected Official’s Position…

Your follow-up letter should:

•    Express thanks for the response.

•    Express your disagreement, refute your elected official’s arguments and make a new point if needed.

•    Ask a question or two, which will force your elected official to think about the issue and respond. Again, remind your elected official that you are following the issue. Do not delay in sending your follow-up letters!

Telephoning Your Elected Official’s Office

The principal advan­tages of a telephone call are efficiency and the possibility of two-way communication. Generally, follow the same tips as for a letter. Do your homework before you call. Be short and to the point. Know your position, and if possible, the opposing argument and why it is flawed. While phone calls are often necessary due to urgency, if time allows, follow up with a letter. In either case, after a vote on the program, ordinance or policy takes place, write to convey your pleasure/displeasure with your elected official’s vote.

Visiting Your Elected Officials Offices

While letters are a very efficient means of communication and can be quite powerful when written correctly, personal visits can be even more effective. When you visit your elected official in person, consider the following:

•    Call for an appointment – Like you, elected officials operate on a schedule. Set up your appointment at least a week in advance, indicating the subject(s) you want to discuss (surprises can be embarrassing for everyone). This allows the elected official time to prepare for the meeting.

•    Time is valuable – Arrive on time and leave when your allotted time is up. Because of constantly changing schedules, always call to confirm appointments, and do not be surprised if your meeting is cut short.

•    Be organized – Rehearse beforehand and have a mental agenda. This keeps the meeting from going astray. Rehearse your “pitch,” which should cover 1) your position, 2) the opposing arguments, and 3) why your position is better both for your business and for the elected official’s home district as a whole. Remember, this meeting is creating an image to the elected official about you and your business. It is critical that you convey seriousness, a good working knowledge of the issue, and a thoughtful justification for your position. Do not present lots of statistics. Do not overstate your case. Personal anecdotes are extremely effective in bringing an issue down to a personal level.

•    If you are part of a group, have a pre-meeting – Select a spokesman for the group to ensure that the meeting covers all you want to cover. Make sure everyone knows and agrees on what will be covered.

•    Always be a good listener – The elected official’s comments and questions should provide insight into a strategy for follow-up materials, or who else to include in another meeting. Remember, the elected official needs his/her concerns and issues understood as much as you do. This does not mean you have to agree with those views or compromise your position.

•    Ask for a commitment – Do not be timid. Ask how the le elected official stands on an issue or on specific aspects of a bill. Be tactful. Hostility will only close the door to future communications.

•    Do not be awed – Elected officials are people just like you, often from a community not far from yours. Most of the time they are “generalists” on issues and may shy away from specifics. They may not understand an issue and its implications as well as you do. Discuss the issues with them. Do not lecture or be defensive.

•    Leave a one-page fact sheet – If it exceeds one page, it will not be read. The sheet should offer a concise summary of the problem and your proposed solution. Bullet points are helpful. As always, relate the impact of the program, ordinance, or policy to the elected official’s own district. You’d be surprised how often they will use the bullet points you’ve laid out in their own talking points.

•    After the meeting, send a thank-you note – It is important to thank the elected official. A letter following a visit can reinforce areas of agreement, provide additional information, and refute opposing views, thereby helping to persuade the elected official to adopt a favorable position.