Writing Letters to Elected Representatives, a guide
Letters to politicians are some of the easiest and most effective actions many neglect.
I write to my representatives a lot, and I often get asked about it. Why? What effect does it have? How do you go about it? So here’s what I’ve learned…
When we write to our representatives, we are not just writing for ourselves. Your representative’s office receives your letter and considers your position and interest in the issue as representative of some number of constituents who feel the same as you do, but did not have the inclination to write at present. They often keep tallies in spreadsheets and track issues. So it’s not just your lonely voice, each person who writes really makes a larger difference than you might expect from one person.
Pressure on elected government officials with letter campaigns have shaped the laws that govern our lives and protect us from lies and harm, such as car seat belt lawsand even the rule that peanut butter has to be made of peanuts and not full of additives!
Here are some resources I believe are very helpful instructions on how to write to your elected officials, and why you should definitely do so.
ACLU: TIPS ON WRITING TO YOUR ELECTED OFFICIALS
Many legislators believe that a letter represents not only the position of the writer but also many other constituents who did not take the time to write.
Indivisible Guide: How Your Member of Congress Thinks, and How to Use That to Save Democracy
This constant reelection pressure means that MoCs are enormously sensitive to their image in the district or state, and they will work very hard to avoid signs of public dissent or disapproval.
Thought Co: Tips for Writing Effective Letters to Congress
People who think members of the U.S. Congress pay little or no attention to constituent mail are simply wrong. Concise, well thought out personal letters are one of the most effective ways Americans have of influencing their elected lawmakers.
Here’s what I’ve learned about writing to representatives in government about the issues I want addressed.
Write to the elected representatives that represent you.
These are the elected officials that are on the ballot for your district. Don’t waste time writing to elected representatives in other states or in other places. Politicians care about their own constituents — people who are eligible to potentially vote for them, and who they are elected to represent. Representatives disregard contact attempts from people who are not in their district. Writing to government agencies, outside their prescribed application or public comment processes, is also not typically helpful. Writing anonymous letters or posting anonymous comments on social media are also generally not effective. Representatives care about what their actual verifiable constituents care about.
Write about even topics you know your representative already supports.
Even if you think your elected representative agrees with you on an issue it’s still important to write, because they are making that tally! It’s a big mistake of complacency to ignore even obvious issues. The opposition will be writing to your representative to persuade them against the issue that you both agree on and if they only hear from the opposition - they will assume that’s the majority of their constituents. Silence speaks volumes, so don’t be quiet.
Write even if you know your representative will never support the issue.
Even if you think your elected representative will never support your position on the issue, it’s still important to write, because they are making that tally! The opposition will be writing to your representative. Don’t be silent. If enough people write to your representative about the X that he’ll never support - at least the representative will be hesitant to go as hard against X if he realizes X is so popular.
Write about one issue per letter.
One issue per letter. One ask, or one topic. No matter what, I’ve heard the staffer will pick one issue from the letter that they believe is the primary reason for writing, and count that in their tally. So if you have multiple issues, write multiple letters, or submit multiple contact form entries. If you write on hard copy by postal mail it’s fine to put multiple sheets of paper in the same envelope. Just write the letters individually, each signed and dated separately.
Write letters that are brief and communicate directly.
Letters should get to the point: the issue, your preferred solution, and why it matters to you. It’s even better if you have a preferred solution in mind, so don’t be shy in stating it. However there’s no need to do any deep dives. A message with 3 sentences really can have as much impact as 3 paragraphs, so you can spend your time wisely.
A handwritten postcard may get attention, but email works too.
A handwritten letter or a postcard may be taken as an indication that you’re serious about the issue. Postcards can be sent with the less expensive postage stamps and may get more eyeballs on them than letters, on their way to your representative’s inbox. However with the existence of email and contact forms, it’s not necessary to send letters through the postal service so don’t worry if you can’t afford a bunch of stamps or don’t want to get out pen and paper. Elected representatives do read and address their email contact form messages. It’s definitely worth writing in the comment form.
A “Letter Campaign” is when a person or organization calls for others to write their representatives about the same issue. It may involve a letter template, or an automated form. It’s always better to write and submit a letter yourself. They know that writing your own letter is more effort, and they may count automated forms with a lesser weight. However, if you don’t have time for that, hitting the button on a letter campaign is certainly better than not writing at all, if the form is created by a trusted source, hosted on a legitimate web site, and written on a clear topic that you agree with. If you’re not sure about the web site or something in the template, but you agree with the issue, go ahead and write your own letter and submit it yourself, that still counts as participating in a letter campaign. You can also participate by calling on the telephone and reading a letter template, or making your own statement. These are all valid ways to participate in a letter campaign.
A “Call Campaign” usually refers to a specific type of campaign where an organization mounts a coordinated effort to have many people call particular representatives on a particular day. This is a political tactic to “blow up the phone lines” to send the message. But the choice is still yours between writing and calling. You can choose to call on the phone during a letter campaign, or submit a contact letter instead of calling. It’s better to do something than nothing.
Reference the Bill number, but also state your position just in case.
You don’t need to know the Bill by its number to express your position to your elected representative about a particular bill. If you know the Bill number, you should include it, but it’s safer to just state what you want and avoid any confusion on yes or no to this or that bill. Example: “I want you to support the bill to have daylight savings time year round.”
Humanize yourself when you write to your reps or talk to staffers
Be courteous and sympathetic. Like anyone else in a service industry, public servants and the staff are dealing with large amounts of the public on any given workday. If you have a personal compelling reason for your stand on an issue, briefly share a detail or two on that. You don’t need to explain at length, it could be just stating your status as a union member, or a grandmother, or that you’re currently caring for an infant or looking for a job. If you have a personal story about how the issue directly impacts your life, this might be persuasive to your representative, or may even help your representative persuade others.
The smaller the elected’s constituency, the more attention you have.
The more local the politician, the smaller the potential voting base, the more sensitive the politician is likely to be to personal stories and cordial bells & whistles in a letter, because it’s more likely the politician is actually reading the letters, not just being filtered through and counted by staff. The higher up you go in government, the more people in a politician’s constituency, the more important it is to be concise and include important key words, because your letter is most likely to be counted in some automated way.
Our representatives have a job - to represent us.
That’s what for the people by the people means in a representative democracy. There’s no such thing as “being annoying” or “pestering” by simply writing your representative regularly on the issues of the day that we care about. In fact, it’s our civic duty to speak up when something’s important and we can do so. You don’t need to spam the hell out of your reps, or cyber-stalk them obviously. Be courteous. But even writing weekly is not something you should feel at all awkward about. The only limit is that probably repeatedly writing on the same ongoing issue more than once a month probably has diminishing returns. But it’s legitimate to write on the same issue multiple times in some cases.
Petitions are tools, and sometimes handy letter templates.
I hear a lot that petitions are not effective tools. They’re not the end all be all of political pressure. But they serve several different functions, usually as a preliminary way to float an idea, and to start the conversation on an issue. But also under-appreciated is that if it’s an issue that’s important to you, you can use the petition as a guide or template for writing to your representatives that you believe should care about this issue.
Letters to the Editor (LTEs)
Letters to the Editor are a great way to respond to news items about an issue, or about your representatives' statements on an issue, in your local newspaper. If you get your letter to the editor published, you can draw your representative’s attention to the publication. Also send it to your representative either way.
Responses: positive, negative, neutral - sometimes deeply disappointing.
You will receive responses. Many will be canned answers in form letters. Some will be a relief or even gratifying. Some will be patronizing, discouraging, even infuriating. IT DOES NOT MATTER. The response you get is irrelevant to the reason you wrote the letter. To voice your opinion to your representative. You fulfilled your civic duty in a representative democracy, to speak up on an issue. It was recorded. Don’t get caught up in the response. You don’t even need to read them.
There is a lot we can accomplish if we all speak up and let our representatives know what we the people want. Most of the time I never even read the responses — I don’t have the time, I’m too busy writing my next letter! We have to let them know that they have to represent us, and how. That’s what government for the people by the people means. That’s why we write.
I wrote to President Biden in 100 postcards & letters for each of his first 100 days in office. This is one of the postcards I sent.
whoaremyrepresentatives.org ← find your representatives
Science Friday (podcast) - 12/03/2021 - Ralph Nader Reflects On His Auto Safety Campaign, 55 Years Later
It’s hard to imagine a world without seatbelts or airbags. But five decades ago, it was the norm for car manufacturers to put glamour over safety. “It was stylistic pornography over engineering integrity,” Ralph Nader, prolific consumer advocate and several-time presidential candidate, tells Science Friday.
The Uncertain Hour (podcast) - Oct 25, 2017 - The Peanut Butter Grandma goes to Washington
In the 1950s, some food companies were ripping off customers and using additives that haven't been tested for safety. A Virginia housewife went to the FDA to expose the truth.