Strategy for calling your representatives
November 12, 2016 12:41 AM   Subscribe

Emily Ellsworth once spent six years working as a staffer for Congress, and she tweeted about the ways to contact them that she observed were most effective for making a difference. She collected her tweets on Storify, here.

Summary:
  • Tweeting and Facebook are ineffective.
  • Both emails and letters to Washington DC offices are less effective than letters to state offices.
  • Most effective were personal phone calls. These can be really powerful, especially in bulk, as she discovered when a local radio host broadcast their number.
  • Emails were so overwhelming that they used automated software to sort through and categorize them.
  • To talk to a representative in person, the easiest way is to show up at Town Hall meetings, which are usually under attended, and mostly the same people show up every time.
  • Be nice to staffers. If you work for an advocacy group, maybe invite staffers to events. Staffers are both the easiest to contact the ones who run the representative's "ground game."
posted by JHarris (48 comments total) 190 users marked this as a favorite
 
Ah the old DDOS method of communication.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 2:43 AM on November 12, 2016 [4 favorites]


That's a great summary. The general ideas might apply to any institution, not just your government.
posted by polymodus at 2:45 AM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I guarantee the idea of calling is true. I have heard from my own reps that if they get 10 calls on a issue, that's a LOT. Most people don't bother. It adds weight to your voice to be one of those few.

The same is true for corporate activism, by the way. I am seeing a lot of people float the idea of boycotts - boycotts have become singularly ineffective, sometimes actually counterproductive (looking at you, Chik-Fil-A boycott). There's no way to interpret the message of someone not doing something. But calling corporate offices directly? That's unmissable, and often has a surprisingly strong impact.
posted by Miko at 4:21 AM on November 12, 2016 [41 favorites]


I see a disingenuous lack of discussion about dollar amounts.
posted by entropicamericana at 4:41 AM on November 12, 2016 [15 favorites]


So...to analogize, the rep is the doctor (runs in, diagnoses you, and runs out again 'cos there are a lot of other patients on the schedule, eh) and the staffer is the nurse (who performs the actual bulk of patient care.) Makes sense.
posted by Weftage at 5:12 AM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


I see a disingenuous lack of discussion about dollar amounts.

Well, she said be "nice" to staffers and invite them to "events".
posted by Foci for Analysis at 5:12 AM on November 12, 2016 [16 favorites]


* Have a representative in mind who has the slightest interest in you or your position in the first place.

You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. But sometimes the fly just thinks you're shit, and not the kind that he likes to land on.
posted by delfin at 5:38 AM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


So Emily Ellsworth tweets that tweets are ineffective. Surprise. I mean, this makes sense in a superficial sort of way, and I applaud the motivation and the topic, but I have to question the actual judgement and understanding of someone who thinks this is an effective way to communicate.
posted by sfts2 at 6:02 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Because the people she wants to communicate with are on Twitter. Twitter is useful for some things, and communicating with politicians isn't one of them. That's her point. That doesn't mean that it's not useful for other things.
posted by Pope Guilty at 6:06 AM on November 12, 2016 [92 favorites]


I've corresponded via e-mail with my Republican representative (or some staffer on his behalf) several times before - once because he still had the foolishness about Planned Parenthood selling baby parts on his website, and once about refugee resettlement. I got responses in both of those instances. I've also e-mailed through his website, and my previous Republican representative, several times and not gotten responses. I figure... I have the tools to do it literally 24/7 and it is instantaneous and it may be less effective, but I actually do it, whereas I can't remember the last time I sent a letter and don't currently have stamps or envelopes.

Anyways, my representative (Pat Tiberi in the 12th congressional district of Ohio) did not endorse Trump and turned down speaking engagements all summer and fall that would have benefited our president-elect. So I figured I'd send him an e-mail. If anyone's in a similar position and would like to use my e-mail as a template, feel free!

Dear Representative Tiberi:

I am writing to you as a constituent who voted for Hillary Clinton for president. As you might imagine, you and I overlap very little on matters of policy. However, I deeply and sincerely appreciate your opposition to our president-elect throughout this campaign. I hope that throughout your term, you will continue this opposition. Please remember that your constituents include women, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ individuals, and people of color who are counting on you to protect them and their rights throughout the next four years.

Best,
Erin
posted by ChuraChura at 6:22 AM on November 12, 2016 [96 favorites]


I'd honestly like to hear that advice from someone who didn't spend their career working for the GOP. It might be true, but right now I'd just like to hear it from someone who hasn't devoted their work life to that ideology.
posted by winna at 6:24 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I found this set of tweets helpful.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:31 AM on November 12, 2016 [10 favorites]


Very useful, thank you for posting.
posted by widdershins at 6:35 AM on November 12, 2016


ChuraChura, that's helpful, thanks!
posted by lazuli at 6:36 AM on November 12, 2016


Here's a post that has been going around on tumblr How Best To Harass Your Local Civil Servant
posted by missmerrymack at 6:40 AM on November 12, 2016 [5 favorites]


I've corresponded via e-mail with my Republican representative (or some staffer on his behalf) several times before...

Do you think this would work for someone who is not a constituent of the representative in question? One of the things I've been having trouble wrapping my brain around is the fact that though a person represents a particular district or state, their decisions on how they vote on state or national legislature affects everyone in the state and/or everyone in the country. Why wouldn't my telling someone who represents a rural district that as a resident in Minneapolis, a higher minimum federal wage is a great idea for people living in our entire state be effective just because I'm not able to re-elect that person? We all live in the state/country/etc. (Sorry for my unsophistication on this.)
posted by TrishaLynn at 6:41 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


TrishLynn, the representatives I've been in contact with have zip code restrictions on who can access their "Contact Me" forms (you have to enter your zip code and then they'll either send you to the form, or deny you access). I think this is because they're supposed to be representing the interests of the people who elected them, which can be frustrating because their actions do affect the folks living outside of their districts.
posted by ChuraChura at 6:48 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


What, so is actually have to talk to someone or go somewhere? Nah!
posted by blue_beetle at 6:50 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Town Halll meetings thing intrigues me. Where do representatives publish details of their upcoming Town Halls?
posted by simonw at 7:47 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Look on their web pages and don't throw away the mailers you might get from them. Or just call the district office and ask.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:52 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Sign up for their mailing lists for information about upcoming events. Sometimes there's even free food!

All this applies to state legislators as well, except it's generally easier to contact them, and their offices are much less formal. There may not be any staff at all to act as intermediary.
posted by asperity at 8:10 AM on November 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


Get on your representatives' email lists, even if you hate them. It'll give you an idea of what's important to them and their schedules.
posted by Etrigan at 8:12 AM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


Not really on topic but I've been thinking a lot about loopholes to undo this national disaster the last few days and who I really want to talk to are my state officials out here in California. I don't want them to talk nonsense about seceding from the union like childish Texans. I want them to follow through on the Joint Statement from California Legislative Leaders on Result of Presidential Election they posted this week. I want them to follow through in concrete practical ways. How?

I think the most detrimental part of Trump's agenda, just as it was with Bush's, is going to be the tax breaks and giveways, the further redistribution of wealth from government, where it might serve the public, to, mostly, the rich. I'd like to see California Democrats start immediately making plans to offset any cut in Federal taxes with an equal raise in state taxes, try to make it as close to a simple one-for-one as possible. Take that money back from a Federal government whose agenda no longer represents the state and its citizens and bring it back here to support the progressive policies we favor. Programs like free child care for working parents and free community college and expanded Covered Calfornia. I wish Democrats in the state would immediately dig into advancing an even more ambitious progressive agenda. Really lay the groundwork for enacting the necessary legislation and make sure to prepare the talking points and marketing. I wish all blue state governors and legislatures would attempt something like this.
posted by bunbury at 8:22 AM on November 12, 2016 [25 favorites]


Do you think this would work for someone who is not a constituent of the representative in question?

I guess the idea is that they're representatives of their constituents. If you're not in the district and you don't like something, then it's not the rep you have a problem with. You have a problem with the people in the district, and should talk to them. (They in turn talk to their rep.)
posted by ctmf at 8:44 AM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


I see a disingenuous lack of discussion about dollar amounts.

You may not believe it, but donation dollars have little to do with staffer attention.

Each office can designate--I think it is up to two--staffers who can work both the political and legislative sides; that is, a staffer who is permitted to speak with and handle checks from donors. Generally this is the Chief of Staff and Legislative Director, or senior staffers in any event.

All other staffers are expressly prohibited from even discussing donations. I know some may be rolling their eyes at this point, but everyone I know on the Hill takes this very seriously--you can lose your job and get your member in big trouble.

Now, in meetings, donors may talk about how much money they donate, or may intimate that they will donate money, but as a staffer you deflect that talk, and report it to your superiors. Any allusions to quid pro quo are forbidden, and has resulted in lobbyists or others being banned from an office. It is just too dangerous to the member.

There is one large exception. Your member, or the Chief of Staff or whoever the dual-duty staffers are (political/legislative), may tell you that so-and-so is a big donor, so please take his or her call, answer a question, go to an event, or take a meeting--but in my experience that is open to discussion. When earmarks were still in use, I had a senior staffer urge me to push a solar project backed by big donors and a party boss. I told him the project was unnecessary, and would make the member look foolish for backing it at a time when he was trying to prove his credentials on clean energy--it would raise questions of why the member was backing it, since the project did not have technical merit. The staffer and the member took my advice, because they were very cautious about even the appearance of impropriety.

I'm not saying I'm a hero, just that there are a lot of practices in place to insulate staffers from donors, and staffers can appeal to those practices if they are uncomfortable. I was once asked to attend a donor meeting on my issue because the member wanted his expert there. I called the Ethics office, they said I couldn't go, the member said ok, and that was that.
posted by oneironaut at 8:58 AM on November 12, 2016 [43 favorites]


Do you think this would work for someone who is not a constituent of the representative in question?

Even if you (mostly, or even always) agree with and support your representatives, they still need to know what you, their constituent, care about deeply enough to make a phone call or send a letter or even email or comment on their Facebook page. If they get a flood of "Vote against SB 39472" calls, then they know to spend more time working against that particular thing than against SB 39471.

Plus, happy constituents who feel like they're being listened to will vote and donate and volunteer, and anyone in office will cultivate those people as much as they can.
posted by Etrigan at 9:00 AM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


This AskMe from 2011 has some good advice along these lines.
posted by TedW at 9:32 AM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


On a related note, if you are in the UK and you are having difficulty with a central government department, writing to your MP and asking them to look in to it can be a very effective way of at least getting someone else in said central government to have a look at it. Usually the MP forwards your correspondance with their own letter, and MPs letters must be responded to. Similarly MPs hold constituency surgeries where you can go and talk to them in person.
posted by plonkee at 9:44 AM on November 12, 2016 [3 favorites]


She left out the easiest way to contact elected representatives, which is to be a Koch brother.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:59 AM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


She left out the easiest way to contact elected representatives, which is to be a Koch brother.
We know the deck is stacked against us but it's still the only game in town.
posted by Nerd of the North at 10:36 AM on November 12, 2016 [8 favorites]


Organized phone-calls are the bomb. Super-effective, and the more organized, the better. I worked on an issue where we had maybe 100 people statewide doing calls. So we had people stagger the calls. If your last name starts with A, B, or C call from 8:00am - 9:00am. D, E, and F call from 9:00am-10:00am., etc. If you don't organize them, everyone just tries calling at lunchtime. We kept the phone-lines of key members of our state senate appropriations committee tied up for days, and enough of them caved on our issue that we won the vote.
posted by Cookiebastard at 11:24 AM on November 12, 2016 [30 favorites]


I'm not in the U.S., but as someone who works in one of those offices that answers constituents' calls and mail, I would add the following:

1) Ask very specific questions (numbered lists help) and make it clear that you are expecting a response. The vast majority of our incoming calls and letters are either filed as FYI or at best answered with pre-prepared messaging, which means they are never seen by anyone involved with policy work. A beautifully written rhetorical essay about the need to protect civil rights during this time of change is all well and good, but nobody except those who open the mail in our office will read it. A straightforward letter that asks the representative to explain what concrete steps they plan to take to ensure that Current Protection X is preserved if Threatening Bill Y is drafted and closes with "I look forward to reading your response" has a much higher chance of being sent to a policy expert for drafting and then to the higher-ups for approval and signature.

2) Pairing these straightforward questions with a very brief but effective personal anecdote and a credible hint that the mainstream media may be interested in the story also helps to get the right eyes on your message.

3) Boilerplate write-in campaigns and petitions do little to nothing to change minds. If an office is already working on a topic, they can be used to help raise steam, but if not, they're just as likely to be batched together as a single incoming and never forwarded to the people they're addressed to. If you're going to start a write-in campaign, try to make sure all letters include original phrasing and personal anecdotes. Form letters that trickle in a few at a time by mail, or show up as a big clump in the inbox with a bunch of bounced auto-replies because people fed fake email addresses into a petition website, tend to be set aside into a folder until an intern has time to catch up on the FYI filing a month or six later. If you do have to send form letters, then try to gather them ahead of time and have them sent in with a cover letter from another elected official (like your mayor) or the head of an established advocacy group, soliciting a response.

4) Speaking of advocacy groups and state-wide or nation-wide stakeholder groups - work through them. These are the people who have the ability to get meetings, and whose board members politicians know they might run into at events. Establish a relationship with these groups, make sure they're on the same page as you with your issue, and then copy them on your future correspondence with your elected officials.

5) If you want to get your message seen by multiple offices or levels of government, send it separately. In our office, we consider the primary addressee solely responsible for responding. If we are only cc'd, it goes straight to the filing cabinet. If twenty different people are all in the primary 'To' field, administrative assistants will pass it around until it lands with a single office most suited to respond / willing to respond, and that office may then also decide just to file it. Occasionally, copying the bosses of the person you want to respond to you may increase your chances of a response, but if you actually want to hear from all twenty people you're sending your message to, then send twenty separate messages with no cc's. The only exception to the above is if you're copying the media. In that case, make certain it's an outlet that matters to the politician and would be feasibly interested in your story.

6) Similarly, don't spam. The office may have a rule that allows them to start ignoring "regulars" who are deemed to be harassing staff or who keep sending the same message regardless of the answers received. Wait at least two weeks before following up on a written response. Make certain your letters or calls acknowledge your previous communication with that office and ask new questions that build on the last ones. Daily protest messages are less likely to build momentum and more likely to become background noise.

7) Provide as much contact information as you're comfortable with. Depending on the office, their staffing configuration, and other factors, you might never receive an email response to your email but may receive a phone call or paper letter back if you put your number and address in your signature line. Knowing where you live may also help the office formally identify you as a constituent (which may be key to 'counting' your opinion) or refer you to other resources or avenues of advocacy.

8) Finally, be polite, reasonable, and genuine. It's a terrible thing that politics as an intellectual and financial exercise is partly what's got us here - that the real, hurting, human cost of oppressive policy is so easily waved off by those who are insulated from it. That said, screaming (whether on the phone or in all caps), swearing, threats, sarcasm, and snarky rhetorical questions decrease your chances of your message reaching the people with any real power.
posted by northernish at 11:29 AM on November 12, 2016 [59 favorites]


I'd honestly like to hear that advice from someone who didn't spend their career working for the GOP.

At least one response to her tweet was from my former brother in law, who worked on the Dem side of Congress for 5+ years. And I quote: "This is exactly correct. You have to CALL offices repeatedly. Only thing that gets through."
posted by gemmy at 11:58 AM on November 12, 2016 [13 favorites]


The Town Halll meetings thing intrigues me.

We got our legislation passed when 200 people (not that many compared to petitions, etc.) showed up in person and promised to vote accordingly if our bill was supported.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:35 PM on November 12, 2016 [1 favorite]


Town halls were a major factor in the Tea Party's rise to power. With Democrats having no significant function in the governance of our country right now, they should have plenty of time to get out with the people and in front of cameras and microphones to grow the anti-Trumpist movement into something that can change the political equation in 2018, if not sooner.
posted by tonycpsu at 12:48 PM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


This is incredibly helpful. Thank you.

I was the asker of that AskMe linked above about writing to officials, but answers did NOT say in that thread that phone calls are even more effective than letters. That is IMMENSELY useful to me and will help me make a lot more contacts with my representatives in the coming year.

Thank you!
posted by kristi at 12:57 PM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


8) Finally, be polite, reasonable, and genuine. It's a terrible thing that politics as an intellectual and financial exercise is partly what's got us here - that the real, hurting, human cost of oppressive policy is so easily waved off by those who are insulated from it. That said, screaming (whether on the phone or in all caps), swearing, threats, sarcasm, and snarky rhetorical questions decrease your chances of your message reaching the people with any real power.

One problem with this is that there's a well-known Catch-22, which is that the people in positions of power get to define what passes for polite or reasonable. Unless there is established rapport between the two of you, the other person has every incentive to not answer your questions in a straightforward way; they will often resort to bureaucrat logic instead of honestly addressing your concern. They might say things like, "It is done this way, because I need to balance competing interests."

Minorities know this well. If we are polite, people in power don't listen. If we express any amount of anger whatsoever, they tone argument and tune out. It's a tightrope and a burden.

So as much as people on the outside can learn better communication tactics/skills/strategy the purpose of which is to build political relationships, people on the inside of these structures have a responsibility in checking the ideological moves that they are incentivized to make too.
posted by polymodus at 1:01 PM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


So as much as people on the outside can learn better communication tactics/skills/strategy the purpose of which is to build political relationships, people on the inside of these structures have a responsibility in checking the ideological moves that they are incentivized to make too.

Absolutely. In my part of government, we often hear from people in a great deal of physical and emotional pain, people experiencing discrimination, people struggling with mental health and substance abuse challenges, people worrying about and grieving for loved ones, and people who have come to us because they don't have the economic/technological/educational resources that government has assumed "everyone" has. These are received, for the most part, by young, able-bodied white professionals who grew up middle-class in urban and suburban areas. As the only minority in our corner of the office, and on more than one axis, I often feel like an ambassador from the rest of the world posted to a tiny island nation - translating what to me seems like perfectly understandable frustration into actionable requests for help via some pretty damn broken empathy filters. I fail a lot, and many offices don't even have someone trying.

My suggestions aren't so much a cheat code for effecting change, but tips for how to get past those first gatekeepers - past the mail room or receptionist, past the clerks who want an excuse to file your message, and past the staff who are only empowered to reply with pre-approved template information.

But to be honest, I feel like most minorities already know #8. The most abusive letters we get by far are from people with their own companies in their signature line who are angry at having something be out of their control for the first time in their lives and who have learned that if they make a stink, the rest of the world will rush in to placate them - and the most self-sabotaging letters we get are from young white men who have very valid points and the potential to be listened to, but bury their message in bad attempts at sneering political satire.
posted by northernish at 2:02 PM on November 12, 2016 [11 favorites]


This is good but it's also frustrating. Why? I am (theoretically) represented by republicans in congress. There is absolutely ZERO chance they will support my positions on things like humans rights and health care. It's a waste of everybody's time to even plead the case to their office.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 2:17 PM on November 12, 2016


There is absolutely ZERO chance they will support my positions on things like humans rights and health care. It's a waste of everybody's time to even plead the case to their office.

By yourself? Maybe. But if two hundred people call over the course of two weeks, all requesting support on health care issues, that's something even a republican will take note of.
posted by suelac at 3:37 PM on November 12, 2016 [6 favorites]


It's a waste of everybody's time to even plead the case to their office.

There's a very good chance that's true. There's also a very small case that's wrong. The question is, what are the other options available to you?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 5:28 PM on November 12, 2016 [2 favorites]


By yourself? Maybe. But if two hundred people call over the course of two weeks, all requesting support on health care issues, that's something even a republican will take note of.

Maybe this is actually an especially good time for that because Trump had such vague contradictory policy messages that I feel like Republican reps might not even know what their own base wants at this moment. And they don't have to know you're not part of their base when you call.
posted by jason_steakums at 6:04 PM on November 12, 2016 [11 favorites]


Maybe this is actually an especially good time for that because Trump had such vague contradictory policy messages that I feel like Republican reps might not even know what their own base wants at this moment. And they don't have to know you're not part of their base when you call.

This is a really good point. Is there a list of his ten million contradictory promises anywhere that folks could work off of? "Hi, I'm calling to ask when you're going to pass the trillion dollar infrastructure omnibus bill that Mr. Trump promised. The potholes on the interstate are just terrible!"
posted by Blue Jello Elf at 6:58 PM on November 12, 2016 [9 favorites]


My Democratic Rep has just won his seat for the third time in a row by a very narrow margin. 1.4 percent in 2014 and only .58 percent this year. When I see a vote from him that I disagree with, I wonder if voting my way would actually endanger his seat next time.
posted by soelo at 7:33 AM on November 14, 2016 [3 favorites]


One time I went to visit the local office of my congressman, the recently reelected asshole Mike Coffman of Colorado's 6th district. I timed my visit so it was on the Fourth of July recess. I was hoping to speak to a staffer about gun policy, an especially relevant issue in Aurora, CO. It was on my mind because of Orlando.

As it turned out, the Congressman was actually in the office--I could see around the corner from my perch in the waiting area. I got to hear him yell at his secretary like a dick about how he was sick of people walking in and not having the time for it. She came back out and told me that they don't talk policy at the local office and if I want that I should go to the Washington office.

He won by 9 points.
posted by zeusianfog at 1:13 PM on November 14, 2016 [4 favorites]


I called the local offices for Sens Corker and Alexander today re: Bannon. I learned that I need to write out what I want to say and have it in front of me, I had something in mind but bumbled and mumbled when I called Corker's office, was much more composed calling Alexander.
posted by ghharr at 11:07 AM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


[Does not apply to residents of the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico. We do not have a vote in congress. I can call Eleanor Holmes Norton, and we can commiserate, but that's about it.]
posted by schmod at 2:42 PM on November 15, 2016 [1 favorite]


the recently reelected asshole Mike Coffman of Colorado's 6th district.

I'm so sorry. I don't live in his district, but I texted all my friends who do live in Kansas Aurora and asked them to reassure me they'd voted for Morgan Carroll. Not that it helped, but it did calm me down enough to get some work done last Tuesday.
posted by asperity at 8:34 AM on November 16, 2016 [1 favorite]


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