Working Through Your Representative(s) – or Replacing Them

Studies have found that Representatives tend to listen to industry, interest groups, or the party base more than their constituents1,2,3, although they respect their voters and certain actions get through to them.4   So what are those actions?  We break out opportunities for creating political change into four categories, then, in the near future, we’ll add links to some current resources. 

  • Local to Global Scales
  • Communicating with Current Reps
  • Getting the Right Folks In Office: Campaigning
  • Getting the Right Folks In Office: Voting
  • Fighting Big Money Influence
  • Some Current Laws to Discuss (separate page)
  • Organizations that can help (separate page)

First, let’s talk about what scale you think you need to work at, what you want to work at, and what’s most effective. 

Local to Global Scales:

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All scales of representational democracy – local to national to global – could use our help to highlight the need for climate action, no matter what country you reside in.  However, in certain countries (uh, the U.S.?) the federal system is a hard nut to crack at the moment; so would be the United Nations. So, to find the scale that works and has the most impact for your region, you could:

1) First do some quick research to see how which of your Representatives meet with their constituents at the various scales, and support environmental bills, etc., such as through a) a Representative’s official website, b) Vote Smart. https://justfacts.votesmart.org/, or 3) the U.S.’s Issue Voter website. 

2) You could check out some useful organizations like Indivisible Group (https://indivisible.org/; U.S.-based) and Citizen Climate Lobby (CCL; https://citizensclimatelobby.org; mostly in the U.S., but also now with chapters in many countries – man they exploded everywhere).   Both of these organizations work at federal levels, but also which have local chapters that can have a local/regional emphasis.  They can help match your volunteer efforts at different scales in a way that may actually make headway.  Note: CCL primarily focuses on bills supporting a carbon fee.

3) Or go with the best default.  Small-scale, local city/county/district/precinct/ward Representatives, from school boards, to city managers, to attorney generals, are often very approachable and are the ones dealing with the actual problems and implementation; they often value help and insight!


“Constituents,” are more than the people who voted for a Representative; instead, they are the whole set of people within a Representative’s jurisdiction that the politician is supposed to represent. Even if you didn’t vote for a rep (and they shouldn’t know who you voted for anyway – though they do know if you are registered in a particular party), you have the right to talk to them.  So gather your information, and your COVID mask, and go for a chat!

Communicating with Your Representatives:

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How do we go about doing this?  When I was beginning to write this section, one of the members of the FB Climate Steps Group noted that he has no information about his Representative within his African country and how to find her, noting that Representatives do not meet with constituents there. I’m urging him to find a way, but some countries have much more established means that make it easier. 

In the U.S., all local-to-federal Representatives have mailing addresses, offices where you can set up meetings with at least their staff, email accounts, phone numbers, and they also sometimes have town halls – meetings in a public venue (like a school gymnasium) open to everyone from their city, district, etc.  Sometimes, however, is the operative word.  But here are some hints for how to get hold of them; hopefully it works in your own country:

  1. Personal, handwritten letters/postcards.  These are more effective compared to emails and phone calls, because they provide such a personal touch.  Your handwriting – and telling your story – really shows you put some thought into this.  And goodness knows everyone is aware of how our hands cramp up from writing with a pen nowadays – far earlier than they do by typing – Representatives appreciate that.5
    1. See below for some Communication Guidelines.
    2. CCL often does letter campaigns, as do many other groups, standing on the street and asking people to write a quick postcard or letter to their Representative about an issue.  When COVID is solved, you yourself could even host a letter-writing party, providing envelopes and stamps for friends.  Oh, and hand-massages after letter #1. 
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Many constituents ask if their letters are making a difference. “Is anyone listening?” they want to know.  While a single letter rarely sways a legislator, several dozen people’s letters supporting the same policy can definitely make an impact, especially if they are about a small, specific action.” 

(Ari Melber, a Senate staffer,4)
  • Emails.  Every Representative should have an email address, no matter at what scale they work.  Go online to find the latest, as politicians do change. (but see note above that handwritten notes have more impact.)
  • Phone calls.  Some organizations provide scripts, but if you follow the basic communication guidelines below (e.g., be polite, show how a bill would affect you, etc.),  you should be fine.

Addresses, Phone numbers, and Websites of Representatives. U.S. (local to federal)https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials, https://www.commoncause.org, https://ballotpedia.org/Who_represents_meCanada, U.K., Australia, Mexico, ….

  • Social Media.  Many, but not all officials, including the main tweeter of the U.S., aka Trump, have social media accounts and pages.  Some will just be FB pages, where you really don’t have an opportunity to comment, but some pages and other platforms, e.g., Twitter, and Instagram, are all about commenting.  As social media platforms usually aren’t part of official addresses, it’ll be up to you to search for them online.
  • Polls and Issue Trackers
    • http://Issuevoter.org – not only tracks your Congressional Representatives history in voting, but allows you to keep track of which bills are coming up for vote and to then designate which way you lean on that bill.  That information on which will made available to the Representative somehow.
Issuevoter.org
  • Polls.  On this one, the best polling companies, pollsters seek random selections, to get the best, unbiased representation on issues.  They are few and far between, but one can occasionally get one.    There is a poll, survey company that wants your opinion, but it is a company, and its results will, of course, be biased to those that want to speak louder than others. https://today.yougov.com/join-community/.
  • In-Person – Offices
    • At all levels in the U.S. and most other democratic countries, you can schedule a meeting with your particular Representative(s).  At the federal level, though, you sometimes don’t meet with the Representative themselves, but you do get to meet with staff, who often help steer what bills actually get written.  Make an appointment, so they genuinely have time to listen. When you do meet in person with a rep or staff, you can come out with a sense of “empowerment and pride” in taking direct action in your government (says Naomi Warren,4)
    • If you go as a group with other visiting constituents, you form contacts and also share the experience across and learn from everyone’s diverse backgrounds.
    • If you are unable to make an appointment, have a third-party, someone who knows the Representative, introduce you and/or set up the appointment.
    • While meeting with them – ask questions.  Interview them, don’t just let them interview you. They are your employees.
    • “….” Max Broad, DC Chapter Leader, CCL)
Photo Courtesy of DC Citizen Climate Lobby
  • In-Person – Townhalls
    • U.S. folks, check out:  https://townhallproject.com/, which provides a listing of all public townhalls at different political levels.  Unfortunately, in these various partisan times federal Representatives have cut their town halls by half, especially after constituents were so frustrated regarding, first, many Congressmen wanting to ditch the Affordable Care Act (aka, Obamacare) in 2017, and then, second, vote for Kavanaugh to join the Supreme Court (2019).  Constituents shouted, threw things, and otherwise vented extreme frustration.  At least one Representative literally ducked out the back of his townhall.   But some public meetings still go on – so look for one in the link above!  Sign up to speak, ask questions, and make your voice actually heard.
  • In-person – Events
    • Go to their bill-signing events, Congressional open houses, etc., start a conversation, and let the Representative know your concerns.  See the guidelines below for more.
    • Here’s a powerful one – invite them to your own climate event.  Make it known a whole bunch of their constituents will be there.  A template for such an event can be found here: https://hftf.squarespace.com/template-letters.

Communication guidelines4….

  1. Be timely.  But how does one know when best to contact your Representative? There are some tools for that, such as Issue Voter (For U.S. federal Representatives, sign up for the service IssueVoter, or similar services for your country. It highlights what upcoming bills your particular Representatives will soon vote for, and how they voted for past bills. Check it out: www.issuevoter.org.)
  2. Whether in person or via a letter, start with a clear statement on your objective near the top.
  3. Highlight some of your knowledge on the issue. Acknowledge the work your Representative has already done (even if small; 350.org.) It shows we pay attention to what they do.
  4. Be specific. Talk about the specific bills coming up, flagged by services such as IssueVoter, or  outline how a law will specifically impact a community and its resources.
  5. Illustrate with a story – be personal.  “Be heartfelt” or humorous in places – make your letter [or conversation] stand out (Ari Melber4)
  6. Be polite – otherwise it can cause a well-studied backlash effect, and for in-person meetings, make it a true dialogue about concerns (4)
  7. For handwritten letters and emails
    1. Take only one page, no more than two if necessary. (350.org). 
    2. If you’ve recently visited or called the office, while writing a letter, or vice versa, mention it.4 It shows dedication.
    3. Send to their home office in their state/district/precinct, rather than the legislature body offices.  It becomes clearer that way that you are their constituent.
    4. Asking for a reply can be motivating to the staff to put thoughts on paper.
  8. Also, if you see any candidate or official at a function, like a ribbon-cutting, don’t be afraid to go up and say, first, “Thank you. I’m glad you’ve chosen to serve this community.  For your next project, I just wanted to let you know that I’m very, very concerned about what climate change and its heat waves/sea level rise/etc. are going to do to this community. We need for you to address this every way possible…” 
  9. After an event, write them afterwards, thanking them for hosting you or for attending yours.
  10. Get training. Citizen Climate Lobby and Indivisible.org both have train volunteers in how to approach federal and state reps for in-person conversations.

Templates

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Luckily, some sites have already created templates for letters, phone calls, and meeting requests:

  1. Global:
    1. Although this letter has a particular U.S. Representative listed, the guidelines and talking points it provides regarding the climate crisis are excellent for any politician anywhere. http://world.350.org/pensacola/files/2015/01/Letter-Guidelines-Senator-Rubio.pdf.
    2. This site provides a general framework: https://www.global-greenhouse-warming.com/climate-change-letter.html.
  2. U.S.: The group Elders Climate Action, https://www.eldersclimateaction.org/sendaletter/, has templates/scripts for U.S. members of Congress and state legislators that are sent through their website, as well as letters to banks and finance groups, businesses, and newspaper editors. You will probably want to edit the letters (finish filling out your name, etc first), as, uhm, there are typos and some old versions; also, I’m not a fan of all caps in some of these.  And please remember to personalize, as mentioned above.  Include your story in this.  
  3. U.S. – specific issues: Some others can be found here:  CCL (regarding the carbon fee legislation: https://citizensclimatelobby.org/write-congress-now/#/14/) ….
  4. For the U.K. here’s a good guide with template: https://www.campaigncc.org/lobbying_mps. Here’s another from Hope for the Future: https://hftf.squarespace.com/template-letters.
  5. Australia: https://www.climateforchange.org.au/mpegs_writing; this second one is more of a guide than a template:  https://www.climatecouncil.org.au/how-to-write-an-effective-letter-to-your-mp/.

Did you know that the people living within Washington DC do not have a voting Representative in Congress?  We have a non-voting ‘Delegate’ instead.  It was thought in the early days that the city was mostly there to support the federal government – but we have outgrown that, now with six universities, thousands of homegrown, businesses – and hundreds of thousands of people who don’t lobby!  I have lived in the region for 28 years now, 13 in DC itself, and I have only once met one Representative – by accident on a plane.  It is why DC license plates say:  Taxation without Representation

So, remember, I don’t really have a voting Representative in Congress to go talk to. It sucks. Value your ability to talk to your Representative.


Getting the Right Folks in Office: Campaigning

It’s easier to “work through your Representative” when you choose the ones who will help address climate change and so help get them into office.

  1. So a critical step, that will take a bit of effort, is to discover what’s really happening with your current Representatives and the folks who are running against them, i.e., what bills they have voted on, not just what they campaign about!  Do the research so you can choose someone whose not going to lie to you, campaign, and then vote.  A good source to start with is https://justfacts.votesmart.org/.  
  2. The next step is the easiest of all – put up signs for your choice – starting in your front yard.  
  3. You can then create your own ballot recommendations, with concise explanations, and give to people you know. Don’t forget to provide resources so they can conduct research themselves (Michael Rosenthal,4)
  4. You can even set up a website with info about candidates, issues, voter resolutions, etc.  To be part of an official campaign, be sure it is nonpartisan and meets the rules of your jurisdiction for the best effect. (See below under #8).
  5. Start campaigning for “your chosen one(s)”5 early – not the last day.  With COVID-19 happening, mail-in ballots will be requested and sent in early so as to ensure they don’t arrive too late to be counted due to a lockdown or another crisis. So start approaching people early with your facts.4
  6. Events:
    1. Form a meet-up (www.meetup.com) of supporters to discuss, or host a campaign party.  Discuss concerns and needs (I am going to lecture here: “don’t lecture!”), highlight issues your candidate could address, and if it’s a campaign party, then start the postcard/letter writing.  Have folks read some of theirs out loud, to give each other ideas. You may be able to fund-raise at these parties as well but check your campaign’s rules.4
    2. Attend or even host a candidate meet-and-greet.  I once arrived dreadfully late to an in-person meet-and-greet, interrupting the candidate’s speech as I had to cross the dining room to sit down, but everything was laid back and very personable once we settled in.  A meet-and-greet really gives you and your guests an opportunity to ask questions, which alone makes an impact if you choose your questions right (climate change, climate change!).  A greater impact will be made when others in the room (now the virtual room) nod their heads if you talk about your concern about climate change.
    3. Nowadays events must be outdoors and socially spaced or online, so outline beforehand suitable activities and some brief talking points. 
    4. Be sure to invite friends who may be underrepresented voters.
  7. Volunteer for campaigns, be a part of a team:
    1. You can help collect the signatures to help put the person on the ballot!  Following strong guidelines, of course.  (If the person doesn’t get on the ballot, you can then organize ‘write-in’ campaigns; most ballots have a blank line where a person can be written in.)
    2. Join phone banks
    3. If allowed despite COVID, work with others to go door-to-door. One can get a registered voter list from your precinct/county that provides the addresses of registered voters, so you then can independently go door-to-door, but if canvassing with others, you can bond/learn/have fun.  Gather your talking points, wear a COVID mask, wear identification, take a water bottle, wear walking shoes and sunscreen, then wash your hands, and knock. Let people know what your concerns are, and why you think your candidate will help find solutions.
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  1. Other things you can do include coordination, designing themes and signs, providing food for the volunteers, placing signs, fund-raising, talking to the media, joining the official planning committee, etc.4
  2. Finally – you could run yourself. We will write more about that under another page about Ambitious Political Actions.

Getting the Right Folks in Office: Voting

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  1. Make, make sure you get registered way beforehand4: https://www.usa.gov/register-to-vote.
  2. Help others register!  https://www.eac.gov/voters/national-mail-voter-registration-form
    1. “Contact your county office that manages elections…to learn the rules for registering voters in your county,” such as who can deputize others to register folks.4
    2. Get deputized/certified for registering voters in localities where needed – fyi, one can often be certified in the U.S. for more than one locality.
    3. You can do some fundraising from various organizations for your voter registration drives.
    4. Recruit friends/family to help.  They’ll love you for it!
    5. Post nonpartisan information about voting drives in places like coffee shops, restrooms, etc…4
    6. Set up drives at farmers’ markets, busy sidewalks, churches, events, student unions, and even bars. Stay COVID-safe and don’t forget the pens!4
    7. Voter drives can be issue-specific, btw. (hint, hint: climate change!). But they still should provide issue-specific info about each candidate – create a spreadsheet of all candidates’ records, for instance.
    8. You can even set up a registration drive at your office – but talk to your Human Resources (HR) Department first;4  Of course, you realize you can’t promote any particular candidate at your office without risking your job, but just registering as many people as possible supports democracy. 
    9. Send care packages to friends with register-to-vote cards.4
    10. Before you turn in your registration lists, do doublecheck your lists to make sure folks are not already registered.
  3. Critically – help ensure that underrepresented voters have opportunities and encouragement to learn the climate issues and to vote.  All the steps above will work, just tailor for who you want to work with.  As Lillie Coney said in MoveOn, 2004, registering entire families “encouraged neighborhoods to vote at record numbers.”  Find friends who speak other languages to help. 
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  1. Then help people get to the polls:
    1. Support mail-in ballots
    2. Offer rides.
    3. Ask your HR department to give time off for people to go vote, organize a voting lunch, and/or give rewards for the “I Voted” sticker.4
  2. Finally, hold an election day party to help encourage/rev up people to vote. If your person loses, don’t leave people feeling like their effort was for nothing – note the positive outcomes, and then turn it into an opportunity that night or the next day to discuss and take next steps to change the political system.  If your person wins, you can still turn it into an opportunity to get your friends/families active in next steps to help the winner take action on your issues!

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Fighting Big Money Influence:

“Identify the institutions that an opponent needs to survive and then deny them that source of power.” 

https://www.ted.com/talks/jamila_raqib_the_secret_to_effective_nonviolent_resistance#t-531039.

Money in Campaigns (under development)

  1. Help support campaign finance reforms, aka “clean elections,” that minimize campaign money (and influence) coming from just a few, rich individuals/corporations.  See here for a current list of organizations involved in this issue:  http://reclaimtheamericandream.org/organizations-public/.
  2. Donate and fundraise from the people. Small amounts of money from hundreds/thousands of people can make a difference!  Obama ran a successful social media campaign and raised beaucoups of small donations (REF). 

Money in Lobbying (under development)


Sources

  1. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/perspectives-on-politics/article/testing-theories-of-american-politics-elites-interest-groups-and-average-citizens/62327F513959D0A304D4893B382B992B; https://www.vox.com/2014/4/18/5624310/martin-gilens-testing-theories-of-american-politics-explained.
  2. Re: Swiss Parliament.https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/ajps.12183.
  3. Re: U.S. Congress. https://media.proquest.com/media/hms/PFT/2/uYx8G?_s=wy7OLRwZzP%2FIYwhlJ88R1U6GA0A%3D
  4. MoveOn, 2004.  MoveOn’s 50 Ways to Love Your Country. Inner Ocean Publishing, Inc.`
  5. https://www.ted.com/talks/omar_ahmad_political_change_with_pen_and_paper?language=en
  6. A Buffy the Vampire reference.  Of course. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buffy_the_Vampire_Slayer.