Next to voting, the most important way citizens can participate in government is to communicate their wishes to legislators.
In order to communicate most effectively with your legislators, it is necessary to know the issue under consideration. Many issues are very complex, both for legislators and the average citizen. If you want to influence the legislator, you must study the issues. An aware citizen can:
• Listen to news broadcasts on radio and television;
• Check legislative news resources online (see sidebar at left);
• Read the daily newspaper, church publications, and news magazines;
• Study resource materials on the subject from neighborhood or church libraries;
• Discuss the subject with family, neighbors, and friends;
• Request information from any organization or group which has taken a stand on the issue;
• Give serious thought to the moral or ethical implications of the issue.
Once you feel comfortable discussing the issue, it’s time to communicate your views.
Don’t be intimidated!
Legislators are people just like you. Like you, they have a job to do, and they won’t be doing it long if they are inaccessible or unreceptive to citizens. Like you, they don’t know everything. Most often they will appreciate information that helps them realize how laws and programs affect the people they represent. Remember, you are as much a help to them as they are to you.
The best way to express an opinion to any public official, especially a legislator, is a personal visit. Your legislator is really interested in you. After meeting you, s/he will have a personal feeling about your concerns.
One of the best places to visit personally with legislators is in their home district offices. They have a little more time to talk there and they can relate to you as a constituent.
A visit to the legislator’s office in the State Capitol can also be effective, if it is properly arranged. Be sure to write or call in advance for an appointment. If you want to discuss a particular piece of legislation or bill, mention it when making the appointment. Above all, know your facts and your position.
On the day of the visit:
• Be on time for the appointment, but be patient if your legislator encounters unexpected delays because of official business.
• Don’t be upset if you are asked to meet with a staff aide. This is quite common because legislators are often unexpectedly delayed in legislative meetings or on the floor of the legislature.
• Be as specific as possible in your discussion.
• Be brief and concise, but cover all points which concern you. Offer to leave useful data, charts, or information, or to send more information if it will be helpful.
• When possible, use personal examples. Talk about your own experiences and how the issue affects you.
• Give your legislator a chance to talk. Respect the legislator’s knowledge of the issue and respond to any questions s/he may ask.
• If your legislator disagrees with you, listen carefully for reasons, but be firm in your opinion. As a constituent, you are important to your legislator. State your issue confidently and reasonably.
• Don’t threaten or be sarcastic! Even if a legislator can’t vote for your side of the current issue, s/he may be helpful to you on another occasion.
• If your legislator agrees, thank him or her and offer to provide support or information if they need it as the issue progresses.
• Before you leave, thank your legislator for the time given to your visit.
Most citizens do not realize how influential letters to legislators can be. Most legislators keep a mail file on every bill and review it carefully when the bill comes to the floor for a vote. A legislator may read portions of a well-written letter aloud during legislative committee hearings or floor debate. Many times just a few persuasive letters are the determining factor in how a legislator votes.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make your letter most effective:
• Identify your topic immediately. If you are writing about a specific bill, refer to it by number and subject.
• Be specific in stating your position, either for or against. Make clear why you are advocating a particular position so that, if amendments are proposed, the legislator will know their effect on your position. If possible, back your position with reliable facts and figures.
• Be clear and concise but never curt.
• Be reasonable and do not make threats.
• Be yourself. Don’t try to sound like a “professional.” Use your own stationery and your own words. Copying material or form letters prepared by someone else is usually ineffective.
• If possible, use a personal example of how and why the issue concerns you.
• Ask for an answer. To get a personal response, ask for the legislator’s opinion.
• Be positive. Avoid criticism. If possible, express appreciation to your legislator for some recent action, vote, or public speech made on behalf of your cause.
• Consider the factor of timing. Try to communicate your position while a bill is in committee or just before a decisive vote is to be taken.
• Always sign your name legibly.
• Be sure to include your return address and phone number in your letter, not just on the envelope. Envelopes sometimes get thrown away before the letter is answered.
• Check the spelling of your legislator’s name and address him/her properly.
You may prefer to place a telephone call to your legislator, especially if you have met previously through a personal visit. A phone call is particularly effective if time is short, or you want to discuss a matter and exchange viewpoints. There are several pointers to be remembered:
• Telephone calls to legislators should always be made during normal business hours.
• Your legislator can usually be reached at his/her office in Madison but, during a legislative recess, the legislator can generally be contacted at his/her district office.
• When talking to the legislator, as with all communications, be sure to identify yourself, particularly if you are a constituent whom the legislator represents.
• State your business clearly and concisely and, of course, be courteous. It is helpful to have some notes jotted down so you will be sure to include everything you wish to discuss.
• Listen carefully to what your legislator has to say or ask.
• Thank the legislator for the time and consideration given you.
It is helpful to follow up a telephone call with a written letter confirming the call.
Faxes. If time is of the essence, letters can also be sent to legislators via FAX. The state legislative FAX number is 608-266-7038. To ensure correct routing, it is important that the FAX be clearly addressed to one legislator only. If you want multiple legislators to see the letter, you must send them each a FAX.
E-mail. All legislators have an e-mail address. Email can be an effective means to quickly communicate with legislators. While email is generally a more informal communication tool, you should apply the same letter writing standards. When e-mailing your legislators remember to include full contact information. This verifies the source of the information.
A legislator’s e-mail address may be obtained from the State’s legislative Web site (see sidebar at left).
Thank your legislator if s/he supports your position through a vote on an issue. Everybody appreciates a complimentary letter and your legislator will know that you are aware of his/her voting record. On the other hand, if a vote is contrary to your position, don’t hesitate to let him or her know in a polite letter.
There is no way a citizen can be sure a letter will result in the action requested, but it is well worth the effort for citizens with serious opinions to write.
The State Legislature has a hotline telephone number (800-362-9472) that may be called Monday through Friday, between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. (In the Madison area, dial 608-266-9960.) This toll-free service can:
• Give you basic information about the State Legislature:
• Status of bills and proposals
• Time and place of hearings
• Names of committee members
• Daily agenda for the Senate and Assembly
• Assist you in communicating with your legislators:
• Getting word to your legislators that you would like them to contact you.
• Providing names, addresses, and phone numbers of your state senator and representative so that you may call or write them directly.
• Informing your legislators when you need copies of bills and other documents.
The Wisconsin Legislature has its own homepage, which can be accessed via the Internet. From this homepage, you can get information about bills, legislators, legislative schedules, etc. For more online resources, see the sidebar at left.
If you are aware of a bill that you would like to comment on at a public hearing, you should contact the committee chair of the committee to which the bill has been referred to determine if and when they will be scheduling a public hearing on the bill.
When attending a public hearing be prepared to spend the day. Committees often hear testimony on many different bills at a single meeting. If you testify at a public hearing it is a good idea to have a written statement of your main points. Be sure to bring enough copies to distribute to each member of the committee. Send a copy to your own legislator as well. Be brief.
You may be asked some questions by the legislators when you complete your statement. Be prepared to answer to the best of your ability, but don’t feel you have to be an expert. It is ok to say, “I don’t know.” However, if you can get the information from a reliable source, you may want to offer to check into it and get back to the legislator via letter.
If you cannot attend a hearing, you still can have an impact on the committee’s deliberations by sending a letter to the committee members prior to the hearing date.
Learn to use the media
The ability to communicate is essential to persuading others to follow a course of action you prefer. Using the media to get the attention of others can be important. Here are a few helpful hints on how to go about it.
• Know your facts. People in the news business value accuracy more than anything else. If they report something that isn’t true because you didn’t have your facts in order, they will be less likely to pay attention to you in the future.
• Know the media in your area. Understand how people get their news in your community. Find out which radio, TV, or newspapers are popular. Get to know the names of the news editors or reporters who cover issues which concern you. Reporters and editors are just like you. They are more willing to believe a message if it comes from someone they know.
• Know media deadlines and schedules. Generally, weekly papers need your story by Friday to make the next week’s edition. Morning papers find it hard to get a full story of a night meeting in the next day’s paper if the meeting lasts beyond 10 p.m. Afternoon papers need your material by mid-morning. Be sensitive to these needs.
For radio and TV, learn the schedules for daily news broadcasts. Make sure they have information soon enough to get it on the air.
• Make sure they hear from you. The best cause in the world will fail if it is kept a secret. There are a number of ways to keep the media aware of your position.
• Write letters to the editor.
• Visit editorial boards and tell them how you feel and why. This is best done as a group so they know the issue is a concern to others beside yourself.
• Be available for radio and TV talk shows. Hosts are always looking for interesting topics. If you aren’t comfortable doing this yourself, find someone else who is.
• Invite reporters to meetings or forums that discuss issues you are concerned with. That will educate them on the issue and, like the visit to the editor, let them know people agree with you.
Keep up to date on issues
There are several ways for Catholics and other interested citizens to remain abreast of what issues WCC and other church agencies are concerned about and ways you can be of help.
• Read the Catholic newspapers. The diocesan papers regularly carry news stories about the WCC and its public policy activities. Not only can these be a source of information about the issues themselves, but they often tell you when a particular matter is at an important point in the legislative process.
• Sign up for the bi-monthly Capitol Update. This electronic newsletter provides timely information on bills, hearings, and other public policy developments of interest. To subscribe, visit the Advocacy section of the WCC website, www.wisconsincatholic.org
• Check the WCC Web site. The WCC Web site is regularly updated with information regarding the activities of WCC. Resources available on the Web site include: educational tools on Catholic social teaching, issue briefs on current public policy concerns, testimony, and action alerts.
• Stay in touch with key parish committees. Parish committee chairs or officers are usually kept informed of important projects or issues of concern to diocesan agencies. Many times diocesan mailings include information about legislation of importance to their work.
• Use the phone. The WCC is always willing to answer your questions about legislation or policies. If you are in a hurry to find something out and can’t get help from other sources, feel free to call, 608-257-0004.