In a 2017 study by the non-profit Congressional Management Foundation, a survey of congressional staffers showed that letters and email communications can and do influence legislators. According to the study, communications from constituents have more influence on undecided legislators than visits from lobbyists. This is encouraging research, but differs from the public perception of legislators as more in tune with special interests than with everyday citizens.
Lawmakers are elected to represent you. Your voice–and especially your stories–matter to their decision making processes. Letters are concise, expedient ways of communicating your position on an issue, and they have the most impact when you share the ways you & your local community are affected by proposed legislation. Form letters tend to have less impact, so if you care about an issue, take a moment to communicate why.
How to Write an Effective Letter
Identify your issue either by using our Action Center to write a letter through the online platform or by researching active bills on California Legislative Information. Your letter may be handwritten, typed, mailed, emailed, or submitted online; it doesn’t matter how you send it, but it does matter that it shares your particular story.
In less than a page, address the following four questions:
- What action do you want your legislator to take?
- What are current and/or potential local impacts?
- What are your personal stories and connections to the policy?
From Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin
- Contact your own legislator. It can also be appropriate to make contact with members of a committee working with a proposed bill in which you are interested; you may want to ask your legislator about this.
- Be timely. If you want to influence a vote, you need to connect with your legislator before the vote is taken.
- Give your name and contact information. Put this information on the letter you send (if you send a letter) in case the envelope is lost or discarded. Include contact information in e-mail and faxes as well.
- Be specific and clear. If you are contacting your representative about specific legislation, be sure you know the bill number before you make contact. If you have trouble finding the bill number a legislative aide in your representative’s office should be able to help you. If you are contacting your legislator to recommend legislation, describe the problem that you believe needs to be addressed and, if you have a particular solution in mind, describe that as well. Also, be sure to state your reasons for the positions you want your legislator to take.
- Be personal. To have the greatest impact, take the time to learn about the issue and then sit down and write a letter in your own words or make a phone call stating your own thoughts, or be prepared to communicate your personal interest for a personal visit. On particularly controversial topics, advocacy groups deluge legislators with hundreds of identical post cards or phone calls. To be sure, legislators count these contacts, but give them much less weight than individually prepared communications. In addition, to the extent possible, base your comments on your own experiences. A personal story has much more impact than a generic statement of position.
- Capitalize on the local angle. Include information about how specific legislation may affect your district or state.
- Be polite. If you have strong feelings about a bill, there is the temptation to contact the author to express your views, even if the author is not your legislator. You are certainly free to do so but be aware that a legislator will give little weight to the opinion of residents of another legislative district. If you are requesting assistance, it is particularly important to contact your own representatives. If you know of positive actions your legislator has done in the past you can begin by thanking him or her for those actions.
- Be reasonable. Try not to ask for something your legislator cannot do.
- Ask for a response. In particular, ask what your legislator’s position is on the topic about which you are contacting him/her. As a constituent, you are entitled to know.
- “Adopt” an issue. Maximize your influence by writing your legislators about only one or two issues, no more than once every few weeks. Focusing your communications on one or two issues can make you an “expert” in the eyes of the office.
- Thank and/or express disappointment after your legislator acts.
Tips and Hints
- Try to keep your message to one or two paragraphs; staff members are too busy to read messages that are several pages long.
- When possible writing a letter on a company or organization’s letterhead will get increased attention, but do not let not having a letterhead stop you.
- Show as much knowledge as you can, but don’t worry if you’re not an expert: Your personal experience is the best testimony that you can offer.
- Take the time to quickly craft a key message – it doesn’t have to be perfect or entirely original; expanding on a message from a group’s action alert is fine, but personalizing that message is important.
- Avoid sending form letters, but if you do send one, be sure to personalize it with a hand-written note.
- Don’t threaten, browbeat, or get nasty.
- If you ask a question and don’t get a reply, follow up with another letter asking politely, but clearly for a response.