With electronic communications readily available at the State Capitol, it is easier than ever to share your views with your legislator. Constituents—not lobbyists, not legislative leadership, not the parties—are the highest priority to a legislator. But what’s the best way to get them to listen and support your position?
The ‘best way’ to contact your legislator is what is easiest for you—most people use e-mail. Letters are handled differently: a legislative assistant usually opens the mail, the legislator reads it, makes comments or asks for the assistant or constituent services to take action, then a letter is drafted, and the legislator signs and mails. All that handling can take time. If you would like to visit in person, it is best to call the respective legislator’s office and request an appointment.
Whether you call, fax, e-mail, or visit in person, here are ways to make your views a priority with your legislator.
- Be specific and timely. If you e-mail your legislator in January and say, “Support the environment,” it won’t be as useful as an e-mail in March—when committee deadlines approach—that says, “Support HF1234 when it comes up in the House Environment & Natural Resources Committee.” Committees are where the real details are addressed. Unless your legislator is on the right committee to hear a bill of interest to you, he or she may not see it until it reaches the floor in April or May, if it gets that far. (Committee deadlines are set each year in January. The general rule is that policy bills must pass at least one policy committee in each house by the end of March. Budget bills are usually alive longer. Consult House and Senate Information Services or the legislative web site to find the deadlines for each year.)
- Be a resource. If you are knowledgeable on a certain topic, let you legislator know that you are willing to provide expertise. If you have a unique idea, your legislator may even want to author a bill or budget request for you and ask you to testify on its behalf.
- Be constructive. Avoid language like, “I will never vote for you again if you don’t support me” or “I’m watching to see what you do.” The sentiments may be true but they don’t help persuade anyone.
- Show that you understand opposing points of view. If there is some controversy about a bill, a legislator will hear from people on all sides of the issue. Your comments will be more effective if you can show that you have thought through the issue and weighed the pros and cons.
- Keep it concise and to the point. For in-person visits, avoid leaving a ton of paper such as glossy folders. Use a brief fact sheet and propose an action for the legislator. For e-mails and letters, keep it to a couple of paragraphs and ask for a specific action. If the legislator needs more information, he or she will ask.
- Volume counts, sort of. Having more than one or two people visit a legislator at the same time on an issue is effective, since it shows that you are really committed. A high volume of e-mails also shows commitment, but if they are all identical they are less effective and just show that an interest group has sent out an e-mail alert to members. Personalize the information as much as possible.
If you are uncertain who represents you, go online to the Minnesota State Legislature or call the numbers noted below (see Resource Box).
Paul Gardner spent 15 years in the nonprofit sector, including nine as the Executive Director of the Recycling Association of Minnesota, before he was elected to the legislature in November 2006.