America, we are told, is more deeply divided than any time since the Civil War, but the American people also are more deeply engaged than any time in my memory. Americans are speaking up — and they’ve got a lot to say. It’s a messy process — there is a bit more yelling than I think necessary — but I have great faith in our democratic system and in the American people to push our elected leaders to do the right thing.
During the eight years I worked in the office of Rep. Chellie Pingree, I was sometimes asked if it made a difference when constituents contacted her office. The answer is, without a doubt, yes. It’s easy to contact an elected official, but if you want to maximize your effectiveness, it’s important to know how the system works.
A congressional office gets tens of thousands of calls and emails every year. The reality is that no representative or senator could possibly read every one, but they see plenty of them and get reports on the rest. For the most part, it’s staff who answer the phones, read the emails and process these incoming communications. They are tallied and compiled, and the member of Congress regularly gets reports summarizing all these calls and emails.
Here are a few tips when you call or write your elected representative.
Be real. An email or a letter that tells your personal story and why you care so much about an issue can have an outsized impact. On many occasions, I would see an email or letter that told a compelling story because the colleague who read it made sure it was seen by senior staff and Rep. Pingree.
Keep it simple. When you contact an office, keep it to one topic. Maybe two. But don’t tell them about everything that is wrong with America, because the one thing you really wanted to get off your chest will be lost.
Be yourself. Some advocacy groups use automated systems to patch you through to your member of Congress. Some offices put less weight to these calls than one in which the constituent picked up the phone and dialed the number for themselves. In any case, if you are making a call as part of an organized campaign, you should be able to express your opinion in your own words and not just be reading from a script. The same can be said for form emails that some groups use. It’s not that these automated calls and form emails don’t count — they just don’t count as much.
Be a constituent. And make sure the office you are calling knows it. If you leave a message or send an email, make sure you include your address or phone number. Members of Congress are generally required to only respond to constituents from their district or home state — so make sure the one you’re contacting knows where you live.
Finally, remember that you are talking to another human being. Whether it’s by email, phone or in person, what you say is going to be heard by someone who probably isn’t that different from you. So be polite. Don’t yell. Don’t call people names. There are some big, fundamental values being debated in our country, and I hope you feel passionately about where you stand in these debates. But if you keep the conversation civil, you will be more effective.
And finally, we’ve all probably heard of the faceless government bureaucrat who doesn’t really care what happens to the average American. I have never met one of them in a congressional office. The men and women who work in these offices are dedicated, hard-working and care deeply about their fellow citizens and work tirelessly to represent the people of our state. And for the member of Congress for whom I worked, the daily input from her constituents was welcome and incredibly valuable to her — and I know the same is true for all the members of Maine’s congressional delegation.
Willy Ritch works for Food Policy Action, where he is the campaign manager for A Place at the Table, a national anti-hunger campaign. He is a former senior advisor to Rep. Chellie Pingree. He lives in Portland.