Seven ways to get your legislators’ attention

This post by OK Policy’s Outreach Specialist Kara Joy McKee originally appeared on

Photo by Maryland GovPics
Photo by Maryland GovPics

Does this sound familiar?

You hear about some out-there proposal at the state Legislature, or you know about some good idea that’s not getting done, and you get inspired to mobilize – to speak up so our elected officials will hear you.

What do you?

The first answer that comes to many of our minds is “Let’s march to the Capitol and have a rally!”

A crowd waving signs is what so many of us associate with politics. We look back to those dramatic, history-making marches from the Civil Right movement, and think that’s what you do to make a difference.

But is that the only or the best option?

You might think about it like this: when someone from work, in your family, or at your school has an issue they need you to hear about, what’s the most effective way for them to communicate with you? Should they give a call or text? Write you a letter or email? Maybe drop by for coffee?

What if before they did any of these things, they showed up on your front lawn holding signs and yelling loud enough to wake the neighbors?  It seems like an odd way to come at it, right? 

Remember, politicians are people too. Here are some tips on the best ways to communicate with them as people and really get your voice heard.

  1. Calling your legislators and setting up a meeting to talk with them is perhaps the strongest method of communication. This ensures that you  get their undivided attention, even for a very brief amount of time. Even a few minutes is enough to tell them who you are, why you appreciate them, what is important to you, what you want them to do, and how you are going to follow up.
  2. If you have trouble pinning down a time for a scheduled meeting, visiting the Capitol with friends and going by the offices of both your House Representative and your Senator to have this same conversation either with the legislator or with their aide can be a very strong way to communicate. The staff of your legislator will take notes about you, your concerns, and the fact that you took the time to actually come to the Capitol and talk to them.
  3. Hand-written letters show time and consideration. Folks who write letters are also the kind of folks who usually vote.  When you write to tell them who you are, why you appreciate them, what is important to you, what you want them to do, and how you are going to follow up, you are making a clear statement that you understand that their job is important to what happens in your daily life.  Legislators will usually respond to your letter, and even if they don’t agree with you, they take note of how many people write to them expressing opinions about each issue.
  4. Calling your legislator on the phone is something most of us have done at one time or another. This tool is perhaps most effective when it is a follow up to a face-to-face visit or a hand-written letter, because you can refer back to the earlier conversation and remind either the legislator or their staff member about your specific concerns.  Don’t feel discouraged if you talk to staff instead of talking to the legislator directly.  The staff who answer the phone take notes on exactly how many constituents call about which positions on each issue.  Also, don’t hesitate to call if you’ve never made other contact.  Sometimes a flood of last moment calls can cause a legislator to think more about an issue than they would have otherwise.
  5. Communicating by email is fast, easy, and cheap. Many of us do it every day, and when you don’t have much time to spare this can be a good way to let your legislator know who you are, why you appreciate them, what is important to you, what you want them to do, and how you are going to follow up.  Legislative staff members usually read these emails and take note of how many they get.  The more they can tell that the email was from you specifically and not just an auto-generated response from an organization, the more weight that email will have.  That is why it is important to personalize what you write, even if you start with a pre-written template.
  6. Signing a petition or automated letter is another big step away from personalized communication that takes time. This is not the most impactful way to make a connection with your legislator. It might be better than nothing, but it is no substitute to your visits, personalized letters, or phone calls.
  7. We’ve left public demonstrations and rallies for last for good reason. The rally has a different purpose than the other six communication strategies above.  When you rally you are perhaps aiming to boost the morale of the troops by gathering everyone in one place to show how many people care about a certain issue. Oklahoma’s 2014 rally for school funding was the biggest in state history, and it certainly made a powerful impression. But even a rally of that size only works as part of a much larger campaign that dedicated parents and educators have been working on for months before and since.

    A rally can be a useful tool in a larger campaign, but it should never be taken as the core of a communication strategy.  Unless your legislator already agrees with your issue or is on the campaign trail, they are unlikely to even see your rally or pay close attention to the message you wanted to deliver.  Even if you go inside and talk to the legislators and hand them fliers, a rally doesn’t have the same effective communication power as the other six tools in this list — UNLESS the campaign has already included a lot of the other six items leading up to it.

I know that last point may be hard to hear, because many of us who are passionate really like the energy of a rally.  Your legislators are supposed to be on your team.  They were elected by you and your neighbors to represent you.  Treat them like they are ordinary people who will listen to your respectful tone, personal story, specific request, and desire for an ongoing relationship.  If they don’t meet your expectations, you have the opportunity to give them feedback. If they still don’t meet your needs, you can work on a campaign to replace them with someone who will.

To briefly review:

  1. Talking to your legislator is about building a relationship with good communication.
  2. Face to face is the strongest way that humans communicate to build empathy with each other.
  3. A hand-written letter builds rapport and strengthens communication by showing you are willing to take the time.
  4. A phone call counts and it gives you a great way to follow up with your visits and letters.
  5. Emails can also be a good follow up and especially if they are personalized.
  6. Form emails and petitions count in numbers and are always better than nothing. Sometimes these can be important nearing a vote that was already going to be close.
  7. A rally serves some specific purposes for building morale and/or supporting a message that has been clearly communicated time and again with the top six strategies.

 In case you missed it find your legislators’ information HERE and while you’re at it share this with a friend.


4 thoughts on “Seven ways to get your legislators’ attention

  1. I appreciate this post as it provides tangible ways for folks to become involved. As a long-time community organizer/activist turned academic/researcher, I would like to add a few comments: Firstly, no one way is ever going to work, it takes strategies that are multi pronged. Also, there is a big difference between issue advocacy or policy advocacy and social movement building, which is what the civil rights, women’s, organized labor, etc. were at one time. Social movement building or at least prolonged organizing and social action is what is needed here. In a state like Oklahoma, the majority leadership is conservative, so they have little reason to listen to the average person, unless they feel like their majority is threatened, which it is not. Usually, they may toss progressives a bone every now and again as a political tool to show that they are bipartisan and compromising. What is needed in Oklahoma is organizing for the long-term. Deep community building, networking to bring progressives organizations and people together, so that they may take action. We do need movement building here, and physical protests and demonstrations are still a part of the strategy, other approaches may include petitions, meetings, phone calls, and disruption. Decision makers with a firm grasp on power and control will seldom give it up freely unless the people make them uncomfortable. Voting is another way to participate, but most political theorists will say that voting is no longer nearly as influential on policy making as lobbying. Lobbying though is only powerful when influential and powerful people, companies, etc. are doing it. Progressives, grass roots organizations, social workers, do not have near the political power in a state like OK as oil companies and others. This is why collective action is needed. When organizations and groups do advocacy and activism work on their own, they become fragmented, so they do hard work, but get very little in return. We must find a way to bring together these isolated progressive groups from across the state in order to take collective action against unjust policies such as, HR 1598 and many others.

    1. Dr. Brady,
      I agree with most of what you said, although I can’t think of a single time in recent years that the Republicans tossed a single bone to the PEOPLE.
      Everything I have seen in the way of legislation speweing out of Oklahoma City is based on the slogan “WWCK do” , or what would Charles Koch do? In the case of the new tax placed on homeowners who purchase solar and wind power devices, I understand that the Kochs already had the legislation drafted and sent the bill to our legislature, and the same bill has been sent to several of the 25 or state legislatures which the Kochs now own and operate. it’s Ironic that the Kochs’ who are on record in David Kochs own 1980 Libertarian platform as demanding an end to ALL TAXATION in every form, now advocate a tax on renewable energy sources. Maybe it’s because there has been a huge surge in adopting renewable energy across the nation, which poses a threat to the Koch’s future profits in their “dirty energy” businesses, i.e. Diesel refining, the 1.1 Million acres of Canadian tar sands they own, their coal interests, etc. They don’t seem to mind taxing something that they cannot monopolize.
      Why is it that our Attorney General has never advised the Oklahoma Legislature not to waste taxpayer dollars passing one law after another which is obviously unconstitutional? Scott Pruitt must be fully aware that the bills will be challenged in court, and when they reach the very first court hearing, they are going to be ruled unconstitutional.
      Why is it that our Insurance Commissioner is running constant ads on TV advising Oklahomans to purchase EARTHQUAKE Insurance, when there have been several court trials held in other states which directly link Earthquakes to the re-injection of salt water and chemicals into disposal wells. So far as I know, there have been no cases which have determined that fracking is directly responsible for Earthquakes, unless it was done improperly by a small irresponsible company which didn’t follow established safe fracking procedures. Why doesn’t the legislature propose that the oil and gas industry pay maybe $0.50 per barrel into an insurance fund which could be used to pay for damages they cause to property? Is the Insurance Commissioner looking after the interests of the PEOPLE of the state, or the big donor oil and gas industry. Is it the Insurance commissioner’s job to promote new business for the INSURANCE Industry, by recommending that Oklahomans purchase policies to cover damage caused by the energy industry? What’s the deal? Who are these people SUPPOSED TO BE working for, anyway?

  2. We have a Governor who said two years ago that “Oklahoma cannot afford to expand Medicaid” which would make health insurance available to 170,000 people in Oklahoma who have a net worth of over $1,000 (I think this figure is SLIGHTLY Higher now) by ALLOWING THESE PEOPLE TO Obtain health insurance through the health exchange. This statement of the state not being able to afford to expand Medicaid was contradicted at the time by the State budget office, which determined that not only would the expansion not cost Oklahoma ONE DIME during the first two years, but over a 12 year period would actually ADD over $400 MILLION to the state in SAVINGS. A month later the Governor pushed through a bill to give $4.25 BILLION in WELFARE in the form of a tax cut which will almost ALL go to the richest 18,000 people in this state WHO DO NOT NEED THE MONEY. Could it be that these 18,000 people also happen to be large republican “campaign donors”, and that the poor, the 170,000 vulnerable uninsured don’t “donate” to any political campaigns.
    Most people don’t realize that unless you make over $16,000 per year, you are PROHIBITED by LAW from purchasing Healthcare through the exchange. In other words, you would be “on your own” as an individual trying to negotiate with Blue Cross, etc. with no leverage whatsoever. Two years ago, I was quoted $1,005 per month for an HMO with a $5,000 deductible MINIMUM. I would have to pass a physical and they would not cover my pre existing hernia. A year ago, I purchased a Blue Cross PPO, good nationwide, with a $500 deductible and $1500 annual cap for $158 per month, thanks to about a $350 per month tax credit, based on estimated income of $27,000. If I had made $80,000 I would have lost 100% of the tax credit, but anyone who begrudges my receiving a tax credit because they make over $80,000 and don’t get one, I would offer to exchange my tax credit of about $5,000 and trade paychecks. I think I could pay a little higher premium if I was making an extra $50,000 per year. I’m not happy with the fact that NONE of their income above $117,000 is subject to ANY withholding for Social Security and Medicare, since the 6.2% Employment tax is SUPPOSED TO BE A FLAT AND FAIR TAX.
    In 2011, Mitt Romney made $23 Million, almost all of it in COMMISSIONS INCOME from Bain Capital. He claimed this income as a CAPITAL GAIN and was therefore only taxed at 15%, before he deducted such things as his $240,000 annual maintenance cost on his wife’s dancing Dressage Horse, her HOBBY according to Mitt, which is not legally deductible. He paid only $13,256 into Social Security instead of his FLAT FAIR SHARE of $2.852,000,assuming that he paid both employee and employer’s shares since he was self employed. Anyone who knows anything about tax policy can tell you that the tax laws are written for the benefit of the ultra rich,who also happen to be the ones who fund the American elections, since the Republicans have forever refused to even consider public campaign financing. On a level playing field, the republicans are going to lose almost every contest. And of course, they will fight to the death to oppose lobby reform. What would be the problem with requiring ALL Lobbying to be done in full view of the public on C Span, with equal time allocated for opposing views when public policy is being debated? I favor outlawing ALL “contributions” from ALL lobby groups. If we adopt public campaign financing, there would be no need for any outside money to stink up our electoral process. By law, the airwaves, radio and TV, belong to THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES, NOT TO FOX,Nor ABC, NBC, CBS or anyone else. The Broadcast media’s licenses are renewed every two years, providing that the licensees primary purpose is ‘TO SERVE THE PUBLIC INTEREST.” Instead of having to raise $20 Million or more for the next congressional campaign, let the candidates debate on live TV and radio during designated mandatory “Public Service” air time. The Broadcast Industry and the Newspapers will fight this proposal to the death, because they make a fortune selling political advertising. I believe in my heart that both lobby reform and campaign finance reform are going to be necessary to stop the march toward this country becoming an Oligarchy, which won’t really be that much different than the old Soviet Union, which was never a really Communist state. There were a few Oligarchs in control such as the Premier and the members of the Politburo, the KGB bosses, who lived like Kings while the rest of the country suffered. If the Kochs gain total control, we could end up being a mirror image of the 1960’s Soviet Union, a state of shared misery. Mexico up until the last 30 years or so was also such a society. Is this really what America wants? I hope not.

  3. I failed to mention a couple of things regarding the ACA. I had not had health insurance for about 18 years, due to the fact that I was self employed and the premiums were absolutely un affordable, AND despite the outrageous premiums, the deductibles, non allowables, pre exesting exemptions, etc. were such that if I had a major illness like cancer or a heart attack, the insurance would have paid so little that I would have ended up in bankruptcy. 70% of Medical bankruptcies in recent years have been filed by people WHO HAD HEALTH INSURANCE. Since that is factual information, why would anyone purchase health insurance, unless they were provided good insurance throught their employer?
    Five weeks ago, I had major surgery for a double inguinal hernia which was becoming incarcerated. I had two feet of intestine wrapped around my left testicle, which had to be removed in order to free the intestine so it could be repositioned where it belonged. I was hosptilized for ONE NIGHT, and the bill for the hospital, anesthesiologist, surgeon, etc. was $50,000. If I had not had insurance, or had the Blue Cross HMO policy I was quoted $1,005 per month premium for one year earlier, I would have been responsible for the entire $50,000 bill. If the insurance company declines to pay a bill, it is not discounted to the patient. However, since I had GREAT INSURANCE purchased through the ACA health exchange, My $50,000 bill was reduced to the negotiated “insurance discount” of $12,000. Blue Cross paid $10,500, and I paid the remaining $1,500 which satisfied my deductible for the entire year. Now, the only costs I will be out for medical care this year will be for the occasional doctor visit, a $20 Co pay (I was paying $175 CASH two years ago for an office visit) or $35 should I need to see a specialist, which would likely cost me at least $400 Cash if I had no insurance.
    As I said, my Hernia had been getting worse and I felt really terrible by the fall of last year. Had the blockage in my intestine become a complete stoppage, I would have died within 48 hours. This surgery SAVED MY LIFE.
    Considering the fact, according to the CIA website of world facts, that people who have no health insurance will DIE, on average, SIX YEARS younger than those who have health insurance, our governor has sentenced the 170,000 people who are uninsured and don’t qualify for Medicaid “Because they are too wealthy” with assets of a couple of thousand dollars, TO AN EARLY DEATH SENTENCE. They have committed no crime, other than the fact that their lives are not worth saving in the eyes of our Governor.
    Another really embarrassing fact on the CIA website is that the United States has slipped to #49 in the world in LIFE EXPECTANCY, solely because we have been the ONLY INDUSTRIALZED NATION IN THE WORLD which has not adopted some type of universal health care for it’s citizens. There are about 15 THIRD WORLD countries which not outlive the United States citizens, because, even as “backward countires” they have adopted universal health care. There are PLENTY of facts on the CIA website which we should be humiliated as a nation to allow to happen, like despite spending 18% of GDP on health care, nearly double the second place nation, we have the highest diabetes rates and the highest obesity rates in the world. Europe is leaving America in the dust. They are not allowing their nations to become Billionaire owned Oligarchies. They provide health care for their citizens. They have strong and growing middle classes. Their Infrastructure is mostly state of the art. Everybody pays their fair share of taxes, but they get a great deal of return on investment for the tax dollars spent. I just saw a travel show last week which focused on Denmark. Denmark is a very modern, progressive country. They have higher taxes than we do, but they have a vibrant middle class and fantastic public facilities. They have been identified as being the happiest citizens in the world. I would bet that almost every European country’s citizens are leading happier lives than those of us in the United States.

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