(What is Civic Mind?  Read our welcome post for the series!)

The last Civic Mind post, which focused on the general nature of our political system – a democratic republic a.k.a. representative democracy – ended by highlighting the role of citizens in the process. Over the last couple of centuries, our opportunities for participating have increased constitutionally, legally and practically.  Often, our attention tends to focus on the ability to participate in the system through the election process.  However, voting is just one of several options available to us as citizens; there are also notable time gaps between each election.  So how do we fill those gaps?

In my own research on representation, I sketch a basic frame of how the representational relationship works.  First, a representative must be elected into office, revealing the consent by the people for that person to serve; for most elections for Congress and the state legislatures, candidates win office when they are “first past the post” and gain the most votes (at least a plurality).[2] Once in office, legislators serve the people whom they represent in various ways – they can be responsive by policy votes, individual assistance, funds for their district, and sharing more general concerns of the people.  When the next election cycle rolls around, we have the ability to hold members accountable for their actions.  Given that citizens have at least two years between elections before they can formally vote again – more for the upper houses of Congress and state legislatures – it can easily feel like members can get detached from the people whom they represent.  As we consider the various actions of responsiveness – or lack thereof – during a member’s term, we need to remember that we are not powerless to act in-between our votes.

Between elections, among other forms of political participation, citizens can communicate to representatives, collectively in the form of demonstrations, and individually through visits, letters and other forms of contact. Although the power of many, seen in protests, seems more forceful, the power of many individuals can also carry an impact.  However, how we approach that contact affects how our members receive that message, including impacts on their thinking and decisions.

A word first: Most members represent a constituency (their people) that includes individuals from varied areas and perspectives.  The average district for the U.S. House is over 700,000 people, though each state receives one representative regardless of is population size; senators, who represent the states’ populations at large, represent people with an even broader range of experiences.  (For more information on the setting of US House districts – called apportionment – check out this helpful brief from the United States Census Bureau, from which the district size statistic is drawn.)

Even though representatives can only take one action or cast one vote, policy is nuanced.  Communicating with members helps them to develop their perspectives and take those of others into view; contacting them also allows them to see whether there might be a more effective or fair way (means) to achieve a goal (end) through policy.  As my research and that of others shows, if enough people contact their representatives with a consistent message, the members do recognize the importance of that message for future elections.

Before contacting your member, it is helpful to gain some background on the issue at hand.  Doing so will help you develop more knowledgeable and effective points to share.  In addition, it will help you see how other individuals, with different life experiences, might see the issue; in that process, you might be able to identify some options on which people from different stances might agree.  Reviewing a few sources from varying perspectives can be helpful, but those that focus on civic education will typically provide a more rounded background and discussion.  These civic affairs resources previously shared in the welcome post for Civic Mind, provide a good starting point.  This list is by no means exhaustive but offers a reasonable number of credible options, including some that provide access to government documents.

If you are unfamiliar with your representatives, it also helps to gather some information on them.  Although not without problematic sources, the internet does make it much easier to identify your member and to learn some basics beyond what may appear in newsletters (which tend to cast members in a positive light) or political ads (which are tilted either for or against a candidate or opponent).  These sources allow you to find your U.S. House, U.S Senate or state legislators. The site Ballotpedia, sponsored by the Lucy Burns Institute, also offers the opportunity to look up a number of your representatives, as well as a wealth of other information.  Open Secrets and Project Vote Smart offer information on voting records for state and federal officials, along with campaign finance and other resources. With your informed thoughts and experiences at hand, you have several options to contact your member.[1]

One of the most effective options due to direct contact, though more time-consuming, is a personal visit.  Members have offices in their home districts, as well as at the capitol. Depending on the feasibility of traveling, identify which location works for you.  Contact the office to make an appointment.  Using the information you have gathered and your relevant experiences, formulate a message, using evidence to support your points.  Preparing your message ahead of time will help you communicate more clearly, lessening the chance for confusion or misinterpretation.

Be specific in your message, but also be aware of opposing points.  Personal examples work well to give a specific story, but be sure not to try to generalize from just one experience; data from credible sources will help you know the extent to which others share your experience.  Identify a specific action that you would like your member to take; policy decisions are very specific.  As you prepare your message, also be sure to anticipate responses that you might receive, especially if you believe your member’s views may not align as closely with yours.  Showing that you have tried to listen/ understand to another perspective can create greater receptivity.  After your visit, be sure to follow-up with your member’s office.

Contacting representatives by mail or email can also be effective when you take several factors into account.  Be sure to address materials appropriately; for example, when contacting a member of Congress send to The Honorable [ full name ] U.S. House of Representatives Washington, DC 20515 or The Honorable [ full name ] United States Senate Washington, DC 20510.  Include a reference line that indicates the specific issue about which you are contacting your member, as well as the stance that you wish them to take.  Be sure to include your contact information – the business letter approach is best – and make sure that it is legible so that you can receive a reply from the office.

In writing the letter/ email, be sure that you have done the same homework as you would for a personal visit, including weaving in a story that shows personal/ district impact of the issue – again recognizing that others may have differing views and experiences.  Make sure to clearly connect these points to your stance and to the action that you wish the member to take. Because writing allows you to more carefully craft your message, make sure that it is organized, formal and respectful.  With written forms of communication, it is easy to misinterpret tone and content, so consider having someone else review it, perhaps someone whom you know that thinks a little differently than you do.

Finally, calling or faxing offers a concise and speedy means of contact. If calling, you can draft a brief statement that you read in advance, such as “Hello, my name is [Your name] I’m one of [rep’s] constituents from [Your town and zip code]. I’m calling to ask [rep] to support/ oppose [bill/ issue that is relevant then]. Would you please pass along my message?” Keep in mind that the telephone may not always lend itself to the detail of a letter.  However, you can also fax, especially at busy times. Faxzero offers an efficient way to send a fax if you do not have access directly to fax services. Best of all, you can attach a letter to the fax.  Some contacting apps exist but do not often offer the ability to add the detail needed to make your contact more compelling, so they are not a recommended option despite their seeming convenience.

As citizens, we have a wealth of opportunities to express our ideas and concerns constructively. Recognizing that policy-making is complex, we also have a responsibility to approach the various issues that affect us in a critical (evaluative) manner, especially if we want effective solutions to problems. By contacting our elected officials, we have the exciting ability to contribute in ongoing ways to the functioning of our political system.

[1] Some content for this post was developed in collaboration with a former student who interned for a semester in a US senator’s DC office.

[2] Louisiana has one alternative that requires a candidate to win an absolute majority of votes.  If no one does so on the initial ballot, the top two vote-getters face off in a run-off election that occurs at a later date.  Local elections tend to be more varied in type.


1 Comment so far

  1. Amy on January 30, 2020 4:48 pm

    Wonderful blog with great detail!

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind