Almost 20 years ago, the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County sponsored a town hall with candidates for office including State Rep. Tim Brown. Not yet a member, I went because I was deeply concerned about the recent spat of school shootings beginning with Columbine High School. I wanted to speak with Brown about reasonable regulations for weapons, like registrations, required training, licensing, “like we have for operating a 2,000-plus pound vehicle,” I asked. Quickly he interrupted me, saying such legislation would never happen in Indiana, and hundreds of school shootings later, he was sadly accurate.
The encounter left me wondering what does it take to be heard and to persuade a member of Congress to change their stance on an issue? There’s no one answer — on partisan issues especially, members of Congress are unlikely to do an about-face on their stance — nevertheless, our members of Congress do invite us to speak to them. Persistence, timing and presentation can all help citizens be empowered to engage their congressman and influence democracy without having to run for office or donate thousands of dollars.
Some guidance is in order. First, contact your representatives, not others. We’re not supposed to contact members of Congress who are not our own, directs Indivisible.org, because our representatives have an excuse to disregard anyone who can’t vote for them. It clogs the communication between constituents and their representatives. Caveat here: this can feel frustrating because money from outside a district flows freely to our representative while verbal communications are filtered.
Money talks, we know it, but a constituent’s voice matters, even if you feel siloed as the only or minority opinion in your district. You are not alone, and the tips below may help you avoid burnout and persevere as you “rep” (represent) your perspective.
For starters, join local, not just national, groups like the League of Women Voters and groups that share your priorities to keep you informed. Many people joined social media groups that required membership in your city/county/district because organizers know that politics is local, not just personal. Group members inform each other when legislation is coming up in the statehouse or US Congress and how it impacts you locally. They support your calls, visits, letters, or emails with verbiage, but also remind you how important it is to personalize your message. Share your responses from elected officials to gauge and ground whether you are being heard. The group will remind you that change is a long game.
Second, find your two senators and one representative (5calls.org is a great tool for this). Sign up for their email newsletters. Budget time each week or two and review your representative’s news along with the news from your groups. Add elected officials numbers to your phone and their email or webpage to your favorites. Call on your five-minute breaks. It won’t take longer than that. Expect to share your address and show you are a constituent. Call weekly if there’s legislation you oppose or support. Stick to one priority per call or email. Know facts. Be brief. Be timely. Be polite.
When possible go to town halls or mobile office hours or set up a one-on-one visit with your representative. This is especially important on the most critical topics to you.
Expect that you can educate your representative on issues they may not know about. When your issue is one of the big partisan topics, you may feel you won’t have traction. It helps to think about your perspective and present it in a way that they may not have weighed before, but don’t be discouraged if your member of Congress won’t budge. Political positions are grounded as much in emotion as logic.
For example, voter ID’s have long been an issue of access. In 2012, they went from reason to emotion for me because they created a huge hurdle for my grandmother. When Indiana first proposed photo IDs for voting, I wrote letters to my members of Congress and letters to the editor. What I wrote then, about disenfranchising the elderly along with low-income or urban voters, who often do not drive and don’t have the opportunity or easy access to a state photo ID, proved true. A month before registration to vote closed, I drove my 85-year-old grandmother back and forth to the Bureau of Motor Vehicles three times in one afternoon to get her state photo ID to vote. I didn’t care how she voted, only that she had her chance to cast the ballot.
We had to dig through her storage files several times to get all the right versions of paperwork. When she became flustered and apologetic, I told her I should have remembered my own experience two years prior. I’d moved back from Pennsylvania and had to schedule a visit to the courthouse for a copy of my marriage certificate to get relicensed in my home state. Even after that, I had to go back home for a bill with my name on it because I’d forgotten that.
My grandmother resided in assisted living and had fallen the week before. Her forehead was marred by a huge plum-bruise that was memorialized in the photo. She wanted to turn a bit, to disguise it. I stabilized my grandmother, who couldn’t have her walker in the photo zone. Several times, they told her the photo wasn’t “right.” Finally, just before they closed, my grandmother had the ID to vote. I thanked the BMV workers who’d had to listen to my dissents regarding the law that put her through those rigors. How many of her fellow residents didn’t have a devoted family member to do that for them, I’d complained. Reason had melted into emotion. I wrote lawmakers again to express my concerns.
Lastly, if the issue is critical, make an appointment with your member of Congress. Some legislation happens solely because a constituent informed her elected official. It may not change minds that day; nevertheless persist. Authors, musicians, and how many others are rejected hundreds and thousands of times in their lives, to prevail you must tenaciously use your constitutional right to petition your government for a redress of grievances.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.