By Jay Hansen
Okay, the trial-by-fire week at work has finally ended, and I can get back to business. Still, instead of diving in head-first, I needed a topic that was a little easier on my brain pan with which to start this week off. That said, I felt it a perfect opportunity to finally write somewhat of a walkthrough guide on contacting your representatives in federal and state governments. It’s been on my to-do list for a long time, and as of late I’ve been more and more shocked at just how many people on the internet don’t know how to write formally at all. I don’t mean that as a euphemism for “they don’t write well” either, I literally mean some people do not know how to write formally at all. So, here’s a few tips and pointers to keep in mind when writing your representatives.
Tip #1 Only address one issue at a time
Let’s start at the beginning of the process; just what are you writing about? If you feel the need to write your representative about an issue, it’s clearly something important to you. Conciseness is a staple virtue in writing political correspondence due to the mass amount of letters and information that go in and out of a representative’s office daily, so keeping your letters on a single topic is the first important key to ensuring your letter is received well, and more importantly, gets an equally appropriate, organized response.
Tip #2 Only write a politician when the topic you’re discussing is currently in the public spotlight
When you write your representative is also a key component to keep in mind. I would advise against randomly trying to strike up discussion over an issue with a politician, as their responses will likely be stilted and vague. Choosing a recent topic, such as matters that concern recent legislation or comments made or supported by a certain politician, will make their answers more specific, recent, and relevant to public discourse.
Tip #3 Only write one politician at a time, and almost always only write your own representatives
Always know who you’re writing, and make it specific. This will show you invested the minimum amount of energy to determine who your own representative is, showing some degree of care in current political issues. Addressing large groups of people in a letter makes it very difficult for them to respond, and seems deeply impersonal. Never write something like “To whom it may concern” for these same reasons. Furthermore, it’s best to only write your own representatives. Each of us have one state representative, one state senator, one federal representative, two federal senators, and the various members of the executive branches (Governor, Lt. Governor, President, Vice President, and various secretaries, commissioners, and other administrative officials) that represent us. Picking your representative will greatly narrow the field in which your letter must compete to be read and noticed, and thus, greatly increase the odds of receiving a prompt, adequate response. There are, however, a few exceptions to this rule, such as with party leadership, primarily Majority and Minority Leaders, or the Speaker of the House. For example, I once wrote Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid on a more party politics related matter than party policy, or one single issue. I did not, however, expect a response, nor did I get one, given the vast group of people he represents.
Tip #4 Online communication is almost always faster, and always use the official contact page of a politician’s website whenever possible
Politicians have contact pages for a reason. Usually, these pages will have a text box with a character limit (though a significantly large character limit in most cases) in which to paste your comments. Writing them this way makes it much easier for the politician in question to filter through e-mails and respond to them, further helping you get a prompt response. At the same time, these contact pages, in the rare instances when online contact is either unavailable or insufficient, also have other means of contacting the politician such as addresses and phone numbers. These pages are your key resources in figuring out where to send mail, be it electronic or print.
With the who, what, when, and where of writing politicians addressed, let’s take a look at the most complex question to ask yourself when contacting a policy maker; how? There are three key virtues to keep in mind when writing any politician, be they in-office or candidates, opposition or supporters of your personal ideology.
- Always write professionally. Do not write as you would speak in a conversation, do not use slang, do not use abbreviations, and most importantly, do not lose your temper or write offensively. No matter what you may think of the politician, always remember to at least respect the office, as the person holding it is surely to extend to you this same level of formality in their response, so reciprocating is not only just the right, adult thing to do, but it puts you on a level intellectual and moral playing ground.
- If you’re not a grammatical super genius, and you’re unsure of a rule or something just doesn’t look right, re-word it. There’s almost certainly another way to convey the same point for which you’re striving.
- Always, always, always proof-read. Even I have to proof-read all my stuff before submission.
- Always start and end simply, with “Dear <politician’s name>,” and “Sincerely, <your name>.” It’s short, it’s sweet, it’s formal; it’s everything you need.
- Always introduce yourself in the opening sentence, but do not spend more than one or two sentences describing yourself. Your primary purpose of writing is to make a political argument or ask a political question, not to just share a personal story. For example, in my letter to Governor Fallin about the Personhood Act, my opening lines were; “My name is Jay Hansen. I am writing you today about Senate Bill 1433, otherwise known as the Personhood Act.” It was clear and concise, the reader knew who I was, and what this letter would be about. That’s the best kind of introduction there could be.
- Your arguments should be concise as well, but note that concise does not necessarily mean short or simple. Again, in my letter to Governor Fallin, I spent several pages trying to prove my arguments, but each one was straight to the point. I did not include endless examples or far-reaching interpretations of the legislation. I only dwelt on the most pressing, obvious flaws in it with the strongest example possible.
- Don’t overflow your reader with facts. Obviously, you need facts to win any argument, but it’s easy to over stimulate in the brevity of political correspondence. Besides, whenever possible you should cite your sources (though sometimes that’s not possible because of the limitations of a politician’s contact field), and using too many can make the overall appearance of your letter sloppy.
- Also don’t overflow them with personal commentary. Your individual story is important, but what’s more important is taking the effects of legislation or political policy on your personal life and translating them to explain how they could affect the lives of others, possibly even the life of the politician you are writing. Plus, while passion is important, and emotion can sway an argument if applied properly, remember that an argument without logic is not winnable at all in a real battle of ideas.
- This actually makes writing a politician very different from the essay writing you likely learned back in school. There, commentary greatly outweighed facts. Here, facts and commentary should at least be equal, and your commentary should primarily expound upon your facts to develop your argument. Many of your letters may even be just a single paragraph because of this structure, and that’s just fine.
- No matter what though, always end with a strong emotional punch. Putting your personal commentary nearer the end of the letter, or near the end of one particular argument within a longer letter, can help seal the logical argument you’ve made with a very personal experience or twist. Doing so helps put a real face on the consequences of certain legislation or policy. Explaining how the issue could affect you and your personal life specifically can help translate how the legislation or policy will actually affect citizens.
- Once you submit your comment or letter, be patient. Many politicians’ offices have automated responses to confirm they’ve received your letter, and, as most contact pages say, only hit submit once!
- At this point, just remember that politicians get dozens, hundreds, possibly even thousands of letters a day. This is why making your letter as concise and to the point as possible is vital, especially if you want a response. Even if you dislike the politician or disagree with them in the letter, don’t take a delayed response personally. If e-mail turns out to be too slow, or you need immediate contact to a politician (such as if a piece of legislation is being considered that day or the next), it would be much, much more efficient to just call them with the information that should be provided on their contact page.
With all that said, that just leaves one question left; who, what, when, where, how… and why? For a representative democracy to work, representatives must hear from you! We may live in an age where corporations and special interest dominate discourse and hold far too much power over government and politics in this nation, but in the end of the day it is still the voters that choose who is in office, making you, at least partially, their boss, even in these dark times of deep political corruption. Public pressure can still very much shape policy, just as it did during the SOPA debate, the movement behind KONY 2012, and much more. Don’t just dismiss an issue because you think it’s unwinnable, feeling that someone else will do it, or worse, that your voice doesn’t matter. It still does. America isn’t that far gone from its founding principles. Will you always be heard? No. Will you always get your way? Certainly not, but there’s a chance you will be if you try. You can’t win at all if you don’t even fight, so by all means, be as passionate as you like. Don’t let what I’ve said hold back something you feel needs to be written to a politician; press on! The battle for democracy is no where near lost yet!
As a final note though, if you write an Oklahoma lawmaker or politician for whatever reason, I’d love to see what they have to say. If you receive a response from a politician from here in Oklahoma, send it and the letter you wrote them to me, and I’ll be happy to publish their letter along with yours (if it’s appropriate) to make the otherwise private correspondence between you and your representative a public record to help hold them accountable!