As a new era in American politics begins, citizens across the political spectrum may find themselves engaging in some collective hand-wringing. No matter your political leanings, times are changing, and many people are clamoring to make their voices heard.
But not everyone can head to the nation's capital to be heard. Fortunately, there are other ways to register your opinion about government policies that don't require a bus ticket. Whether you want to weigh in on a state tax issue or share your thoughts about one of President Donald Trump's recent executive orders, here are four ways to be proactive in a tumultuous political environment.
1. Call your representatives. You have three federal representatives: two U.S. senators who represent your state and a U.S. representative who represent your district within the state. If you don't know who they are, look them up here using your ZIP code.
These folks have two offices — one in Washington, D.C., and the other in their district. Their websites should have contact information and business hours. A former staffer at the Los Angeles office of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, Sarah Gray, suggests calling the local office during business hours to guarantee that you'll speak to a staffer. You may not chat directly with your senator or representative, but you'll speak to someone in their office.
Before you call, do a little prep work (gather bill numbers or names of relevant parties, for example) and think about what you want to say. Some food for thought from Gray:
Do you want your congress person to vote a specific way on a bill? If so, have the bill number and name ready. Do you want to voice your opinion on a non-legislative issue? Have your opinion ready. Do you have a question about where a bill is in the legislative process? Or how your representative plans to vote on a bill? Have the name and number ready for the staff member to look up. Do you need help with a specific casework issue? Make sure it's something that the federal government (and not your state or local government officials) covers and be ready to fill out a casework form.
When you call, state that you are a constituent; the staffers in the offices are employed to engage with constituents. Emily Ellsworth, a former staffer in the district offices of Utah Reps. Jason Chaffetz and Chris Stewart, published a series of helpful tweets after the election about the effectiveness of calling versus writing to your reps. Basically, she says, if you call a local office during business hours, they are required to talk to you. And if an office gets a pattern of calls, they talk with their counterparts in the D.C. offices about the trend. "You can bet my bosses heard about it," Ellsworth said.
Your federal representatives meet at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., but they have a local district office as well, and contacting that office is your best chance of connecting with a person who will listen. (Photo: Orhan Cam/Shutterstock)
2. Write to your reps. Better yet, have your kids do it. Ellsworth and Gray agree that calling your rep's local office is the best bet. But if you want to write a letter or email in addition, here's Ellsworth's advice: "Writing a letter to the district office (state) is better than sending an email or writing a letter to D.C. We represented half a million people, it was impossible to read and respond personally to all letters. The sheer volume of emails is overwhelming. So, we batched them with computer algorithms and sent out form letters based on topic and position, regardless of method received."
In your correspondence, explain why something matters to you and include anecdotes about how the issue affects you personally. If it's an issue appropriate to discuss with your children, have them write a letter. Children have powerful voices, and who can resist an earnest letter in a child's script? Ellsworth says your letters and emails do get seen by staffers even if you do not receive a response.
3. Call members of a particular committee. The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights says you may find it useful to call other members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives if they are on a certain committee or in a particular position to help get a bill passed. If you're not a constituent, they may ignore you, but you never know.
4. Write a letter to the editor, or even a blog post. Elected officials are likely to have Google alerts on their names, which means that if a newspaper publishes a letter to the editor or an op-ed about them, they'll be notified. Or if a blogger — no matter how small — mentions them, it'll get noticed. If you can find a publishing platform, use it to your advantage.
Sign up for your representatives' email lists to be informed of upcoming town hall meetings in your area. (Photo: Sage Ross/Wikimedia Commons)
5. Attend town hall meetings. Ellsworth said the congressmen she worked for would hold town hall meetings where fewer than 50 people showed up, and it was the same people every time. Sign up for their email lists to be informed of upcoming town hall dates and locations.
These may not be worth your time
Tweeting. Unless you're famous, tweeting is largely an ineffective method to get your representatives' attention. Ellsworth said she waded through tweets and Facebook posts only to remove the harassing ones.
However, the National Priorities Project, which was nominated for 2014 Nobel Peace Prize, says: "When you comment on your legislator’s Facebook page or send a tweet, other constituents can read your message. This may spark a dialogue. It could also help increase awareness about the issue you’re raising and build support for your cause. Through social media sites you can ask questions, respond to legislators’ posts or Tweets, encourage them to take action, thank them when they do something you support, and much more."
Signing online petitions. Petitions date back centuries as an organizing tool, as activists would take hard copies door to door. These days, you can sign an online petition with the click of a button. Sites like Change.org are hugely popular: More than 10 million people are using the site, and more than 15,000 new campaigns are launched every month, Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of Change.org, told NPR.
While there's likely no harm in signing an online petition, there's also likely little chance the petition will go anywhere. Take this example from The Guardian:
There is a small green bag in the House of Commons that hangs hidden on the back of the Speaker's chair with a sign attached. It reads: "Do not touch". Into this bag disappear all the petitions that pass through parliament. It is hard to see this bag as anything other than a metaphor for the triviality with which politicians treat petitions and civic engagement in general.
Some say the age of social media has diluted the power of the online petition because clicking "like" or "follow" is easy and passive. Still, some online petitions have had major success, so optimists should proceed with enthusiasm.