Voting is more than a right. It is an obligation. It is the strongest mechanism we, the people, have to hold our politicians accountable to us. When we vote, we have power. When we don’t, the politicians have power over us.
But voting is just the beginning. Politicians need to hear from us more than once every two, four or six years. They need to hear from us regularly. Even daily. They need to know what we expect from them, and what we won’t stand for. They need to know that there will be consequences if they take actions that we oppose. They need to have a healthy fear that they may not be re-elected if they ignore what we are telling them.
How do we get their attention? A list of comparatively ineffective means can be found here.
SO WHAT DOES WORK?
Actual communication with the leaders you elect is the single best way to pressure politicians. This can take several forms, such as in-person meetings or emails, and each method has its strengths and drawbacks. Let’s go over them, in order from most to least effective.
In-person meetings with a representative or senator for yourself and a small group of others who agree with you are the most effective way to get results from an elected official. The reason is obvious — it’s impossible to ignore someone who is standing before you, or sitting at your desk. Any constituent can request a meeting — simply call your representative or senator’s office and ask. However, meetings will not always be granted. Reasons for this can range from scheduling conflicts to conflicts with a politician’s agenda. Some politicians hostile to your point of view simply won’t want to meet.
The Indivisible Guide offers the following advice for requesting in-person meetings with staffers, though the advice will also work with meetings with a politician him or herself:
- Have a specific “ask” — E.g. vote against X, cosponsor Y, publicly state Z, etc.
- Leave staff with a brief write up of your issue, with your ask clearly stated.
- Share a personal story of how you or someone in your group is personally impacted by the specific issue (health care, immigration, medicare, etc.).
- Be polite — Yelling at the underpaid, overworked staffer won’t help your cause.
- Be persistent — Get their business card and call/email them regularly; ask if the MoC has taken action on the issue.
If a politician refuses to meet, you do have the option to hold a sit-in in their office. Be advised, though, that these can backfire. Again, from Indivisible:
Note that office sit-ins can backfire, so be very thoughtful about the optics of your visit. This tactic works best when you are protesting an issue that directly affects you and/or members of your group (e.g. seniors and caregivers on Medicare cuts, or Muslims and allies protesting a Muslim registry). Being polite and respectful throughout is critical.
Town Hall Meetings / Coffee Hours
Elected leaders may spend much of their time in Lansing or Washington, but they will regularly hold events in district, such as monthly coffee or office hours, or issue-oriented town halls. These events give you a chance to meet with the representative or senator face-to-face without the hassle of working through a staffer to get an appointment. However, you will be sharing (or fighting for) time with anyone else who shows up, and you may not be able to focus the conversation on your topic of interest.
Once more, from Indivisible, here is advice on how to effectively use these public meetings to get results:
Prepare several questions ahead of time for your group to ask. Your questions should be sharp and fact-based, ideally including information on the MoC’s record, votes they’ve taken, or statements they’ve made. Thematically, they should focus on a limited number of issues to maximize impact. Prepare 5-10 of these questions and hand them out to your group ahead of the meeting. Example question:
“I and many district families in Springfield rely on Medicare. I don’t think we should be rationing health care for seniors, and the plan to privatize Medicare will create serious financial hardship for seniors who can’t afford it. You haven’t gone on the record opposing this. Will you commit here and now to vote no on Bill X to cut Medicare?”
Get there early, meet up, and get organized. Meet outside or in the parking lot for a quick huddle before the event. Distribute the handout of questions, and encourage members to ask the questions on the sheet or something similar.
Get seated and spread out. Head into the venue a bit early to grab seats at the front half of the room, but do not all sit together. Sit by yourself or in groups of two, and spread out throughout the room. This will help reinforce the impression of broad consensus.
Make your voices heard by asking good questions. When the MoC opens the floor for questions, everyone in the group should put your hands up and keep them there. Look friendly or neutral so that staffers will call on you. When you’re asking a question, remember the following guidelines:
- Stick with the prepared list of questions. Don’t be afraid to read it straight from the printout if you need to.
- Be polite but persistent, and demand real answers. MoCs are very good at deflecting or dodging questions they don’t want to answer. If the MoC dodges, ask a follow-up question. If they aren’t giving you real answers, then call them out for it. Other group members around the room should amplify by either booing the MoC or applauding you.
- Don’t give up the mic until you’re satisfied with the answer. If you’ve asked a hostile question, a staffer will often try to limit your ability to follow up by taking the microphone back immediately after you finish speaking. They can’t do that if you keep a firm hold on the mic. No staffer in their right mind wants to look like they’re physically intimidating a constituent, so they will back off. If they object, then say politely but loudly: “I’m not finished. The MoC is dodging my question. Why are you trying to stop me from following up?”
- Keep the pressure on. After one member of the group finishes, everyone should raise their hands again. The next member of the group to be called on should move down the list of questions and ask the next one.
Support the group and reinforce the message. After one member of your group asks a question, everyone should applaud to show that the feeling is shared throughout the audience. Whenever someone from your group gets the mic, they should note that they’re building on the previous questions — amplifying the fact that you’re part of a broad group.
Record everything! Assign someone in the group to use their smart phone or video camera to record other advocates asking questions and the MoC’s response. While written transcripts are nice, unfavorable exchanges caught on video can be devastating for MoCs. These clips can be shared through social media and picked up by local and national media.
Calling Your Representatives and Senators
If you can’t make it to a public meeting or arrange for a private one, you can still get your representative’s ear by calling their offices. You can do this either on your own or as part of a coordinated effort. While coordinated efforts are more effective, a slow and steady stream of calls on the same topic will have a cumulative effect as well.
When making a call, understand that you will likely not speak directly with the politician. Your call will be answered by a staffer, sometimes an intern, who holds little power themselves. So be polite, but be firm. There’s nothing to gain by losing your temper with these folks, calling them names, telling them they or their boss is evil, etc.
Their natural inclination will be to take your position and get you off the phone. Calls take time out of their day from other job duties, and when your call is part of a coordinated effort, they will likely be answering calls nonstop. Try to push beyond this though.
Advice from Indivisible:
Prepare a single question per call. For in-person events, you want to prepare a host of questions, but for calls, you want to keep it simple. You and your group should all agree to call in on one specific issue that day. The question should be about a live issue — e.g. a vote that is coming up, a chance to take a stand, or some other time-sensitive opportunity. The next day or week, pick another issue, and call again on that.
Once you’ve made your call, share your experience and the outcome with your friends both on- and off-line. The more people who hear about your action, the more who will be inspired to do the same. I contacted my Congressman last week and put a quick post about it on Facebook. That led to about 30 other people calling his office to make similar comments.
Email or Snailmail
Whenever possible, call rather than write. You may be thinking that written communication is more durable, and that’s true. But the downside is that written communication is more durable. It can be stuffed in a folder or drawer and never read. When you are face-to-face with someone or on the phone with them, they can’t ignore you. When you send them a letter, they can.
Please do not consider this a comprehensive list of ways to take effective action. There will likely be many more. These are just some of the most common ways citizens can communicate with their elected officials to tell them what we expect them to do as our representatives in government.