Having direct access to our elected officials is a cornerstone of democracy. Even so, the idea of lobbying your legislator can feel daunting. Isn’t that best left to big organizations and slick Washington power brokers?
Not at all, actually. The First Amendment specifically protects the rights of all people to make their voices heard by those who represent them. In the past, this usually meant making an in-person appointment with your legislator—a challenging time commitment for many. Thankfully, the recent rise of video conferencing apps has made public officials more accessible to their constituents than ever before.
“I think it's easier and less intimidating these days,” says Tim Edland, national deputy campaigns director of NRDC’s Center for Policy Advocacy, explaining that even as in-person visits resume, the array of digital alternatives that cropped up during the COVID-19 pandemic are unlikely to disappear. “You may be surprised how receptive [legislators] are to your reaching out about an issue that matters to you.”
Figure out your legislative priority.
Lobbying is typically done with the goal of influencing lawmakers on specific policies. Before making an initial call or sending an e-mail, confirm that the person you’re trying to meet with can actually help you achieve what you want.
Ultimately, as Edland notes, you’re making “an actual ask for a vote.” So familiarize yourself with the current legislation. Is there a vote approaching on a bill you want to see passed? Pin your meeting to that and be ready to explain why its passage is important to you and your community. You can also ask them to commit to taking a certain position on an issue, or agree to introduce or cosponsor legislation. Either way, make sure your request is concrete and actionable.
Pay attention to timing.
If you’re tracking the status of a bill, make contact well before it moves to the floor, particularly if your legislator is on a committee that will hear it first. “Don't wait until you hear news to reach out,” Edland advises.
But if time isn’t on your side (and the bill is already under active debate), all is not lost—contacting your legislator quickly by phone or e-mail can still be effective.
Craft your elevator pitch.
Assuming you’ll only have a brief window to make your case, it’s important to have your talking points down. Edland suggests preparing a 30- to 90-second pitch, which includes an introduction (be sure to mention that you’re a constituent and regular voter) and a reference to the name of the upcoming bill you want to discuss. You’ll want to point to any previous votes the legislator has made that support your issue and to common values that you share (social media can tell you a lot about your legislator’s values, and some environmental organizations and grassroots social justice groups put out scorecards that track officials’ records of action). Also be sure to jot down a few details on how the issue affects you personally. From there, conclude with your request on the position you’d like them to take or how you hope they’ll vote on upcoming legislation.
Consider making it a group meeting.
You can plan to request a one-on-one meeting or ask to attend with a small group; either way is effective. If you have friends with lobbying experience or a personal connection to the legislator, it’s a good idea to include them. NRDC also schedules lobby days in some states, which can help ease you into the process—join our community to receive e-mails or text messages about these opportunities.
You can find the contact information for your representative on their website. In some states, a scheduler might take your call and arrange the next steps. But in others, you might be connected directly.
“There are states with only one support staff for the entire caucus,” Edland says. That means the person who answers the phone may well be your actual representative. “If you call that number, it goes to their legislative desk for real.”
Be prepared to succinctly explain what your issue is about and that you want to arrange a time to discuss it (unless you’re given the opportunity to do so right then and there). If you’re bringing any friends along, mention that; also ask how many minutes of face time you can expect. Legislators are busy people, Edland explains, often balancing many different responsibilities at one time with very few staff (especially on the state level). But, for the most part, they do want to hear from their constituents. So if you leave a message and no one gets back to you, wait a few days and call again. If you still don’t hear back—there are certainly some legislators who have no appetite for public discourse—seize the opportunity to state your case at a town hall or public hearing.
Expect a dialogue.
“The more specifics you provide about how [a bill] affects you and other constituents, the more follow-up questions they may have,” Edland says. When it’s time for your meeting, come as prepared as you can be, but if you don’t know an answer, promise you’ll find out—and make good on your word.
You might find that your representative disagrees with you, and that’s okay. Be firm in your position but always be polite. After all, this is your opportunity to change their mind. If they have yet to take a position, it’s unlikely they’ll do it in the middle of the meeting. Having an ask—and a time frame in which you want it achieved—makes it harder to push you off indefinitely.
Once you’ve left the meeting, follow up with an e-mail thanking your representative for their time and letting them know that if they have any questions, they’re welcome to get in touch. You can also provide any additional information you think will help bolster your argument or reiterate any key points from your face time.
If you use social media, let your representative know that you’ll be following the actions they’re taking on your issue and tagging them accordingly. “Legislators and politicians generally really care about their image and how they're perceived,” Edland says. “With social media, you have the ability to influence the discussion around these members.”
Of course, you’ll be paying attention to any forward motion on the bill or issue you discussed. If they end up supporting it, thank them again and recognize their good work publicly.
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