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Political Communication

Contacting Representatives: Is it Worth It?

Note: This page was written by the retired Social Science Librarian, John Henderson 

Elected officials have been accused of systematically discounting the opinions of constituents with whom they disagree. Even if they don't disagree, it will be be difficult to sway them to buck their party's position. However, letters and phone calls can and have made the difference, especially on issues that have some bipartisan support. Even if it does not convince your representatives on a specific issue, they need to know you are out there. They well know that people who are active enough to contact them are the most conscientious voters.

In General

  1. Only contact your own elected official. Otherwise your message will be ignored. The only exception is if the Senator or Representative is in a leadership role, and even then your chances are iffy for getting through.
  2. There is power in numbers. You may be only one person, but the more people who contact an office, the more impact the contacts will have. Unlike voting, you can do it more than once.
  3. If you sound like a "crackpot" or a "kook," you won't be ignored, but you may not get the response you hope for.
  4. You can be angry but civil and polite at the same time. 

Phone Calls

Based on advice from Mark Jahnke, who used to work in a US Senator's office as the person in charge of incoming phone calls.

  1. Give your name, city, and zip code, and say "I don't need a response." If you want a response, it will take additional time to input you into a database.
  2. Your tally will not be marked down unless you can rattle off a city and zip from the state, or are calling from an in-state area code.
  3. State one issue, state your position. That's it. That's all the person on the phone will write down, so they can tally who is in favor, who is against.
  4. Please be nice! The people answering the phones have the hardest job in DC and some of the lowest pay as well. Many are unpaid interns – so it won't help to tell them that as a taxpayer you are paying their salary. Thank them for their hard work.

An additional tip is to call during business hours, and keep trying if the line is busy. There have been claims that some elected officials purposefully keep their message boxes full, so no after-hours messages can get through. Some have even been accused of leaving their phones off the hook during business hours. This has not been documented.

Emails

  1. Reports are mixed on the effectiveness of emails. Some insiders claim that as long as they are not formula emails, they have the same impact as letters and are more effective because of their immediacy. Others advise that they are routinely discounted because it takes so little investment in time and effort by those who send them. 
  2. If your email is not a copy and paste message in full or in part, it is less likely to be discounted and deleted.
  3. If you ask for a response, you may not get a response, but your email may be saved. Include the same information you would on a letter, such as an address to identify yourself as a constituent.

In Person

  1. You may never have a chance to meet the President or a US Senator, but Congressional Representatives welcome visits to their office in Washington, although they do have demanding schedules.
  2. Group visits can be particularly effective and can be planned in advance.
  3. Representatives regularly hold town hall meetings in various parts of their district, so one of the best ways to contact these officials is to show up.

Petitions

  1. Sorry, the word is that petitions are not particularly influential. 
  2. Again the exception is if the numbers are too great to be ignored.
  3. They will have more effect if they not only have a huge number of signatures but can be delivered in person.
  4. Signing online petitions will often produce an increase in your email traffic and more requests for money, since the lists that have been generated are routinely sold or shared.

Cathy Michael

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Cathy Michael
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Ithaca College Library 953 Danby Rd
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