Writing a letter to a legislator is one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal if you’re, like most of us, not connected with people in political power and have minimal personal clout. A letter doesn’t have to take very long and it doesn’t have to be particularly detailed or eloquent. In fact, given how many letters legislators receive, keeping it short and simple can sometimes be to your advantage. Remember, it’s probably only going to be read by an aide, who will, if anything, summarise it for the legislator, or add it to a list of statistics passed to the legislator; ’43 constituents wrote in support of this bill.’ Rarely will the legislator personally read it and respond.
Gather your information before you start; presumably you know what it is that you want to write about, if you’re preparing to write a letter. Make sure you have the bill information and summary to hand. It can be helpful to know who is sponsoring or cosponsoring the bill, because this information may be helpful to bring up in the letter. If you have talking points from an action item issued by a political organisation, those can be useful too. Lots of those organisations also have templates you can use, but a personalised letter can count for more, when aides weight the contacts from constituents.
You may be writing in support of (purely hypothetical) HR 567, banning confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), introduced by Senators Abc and Xyz. The key point that you want to get across in your letter is that you think this piece of legislation is a good thing, and you want your legislator to support it. Maybe you are a small farmer who feels that CAFOs harm animals and your business. Perhaps you care about the source of your food, or you work in the restaurant industry. Or you’re an epidemiologist who is concerned about the rise of resistant infections that grow in places like CAFOs. Having an angle on your support can be important because you want your legislator to know that the constituency is diverse and that support or opposition may come from across the board, so take a minute to formulate why it’s important to you.
Make sure you have the legislator’s correct mailing address, and take the time to address the legislator properly. Legislators are ‘The Honorable’ on the letter direction. If Jane Q. Legislator’s a Senator, you open with ‘Dear Senator Legislator.’ If she’s a Representative, she’s ‘Dear Ms. Legislator.’ Representatives are pretty helpful about listing their mailing addresses so you shouldn’t have too much trouble tracking this information down. And make sure to include your own contact information so the office can respond!
Keep your letter crisp and simple. Your opening paragraph should explain why you’re contacting the legislator. The next paragraph can provide some supporting information to explain why you feel the way you do. The closing paragraph can reference the legislator’s record and history, showing that you follow that person’s activities and you feel that support (or opposition) in a matter would fit in with the legislator’s past. Close with a respectful salutation. That’s really all you need, is three solid paragraphs. The letter should fit on a single page. It can be handwritten, and doesn’t need to be on letterhead or anything like that. You can also send copies to other people, and make the legislator aware of that with a cc: at the bottom (if you’re asking for assistance with something, for example, you can write a legislator and copy the relevant government agencies).
Thus, you might end up with a letter like:
Dear Senator Legislator,
I’m writing today to ask you to support HR 567, a bill introduced by your colleagues Senator Xyz and Senator Abc. This bill to ban the use of confined animal feeding operations will be an important step forward for agriculture and animal welfare in the United States.
I am very concerned about environmental health. As I’m sure you’re aware, CAFOs add heavily to agricultural pollution that contaminates our waterways and oceans. The crowded environment at such facilities also encourages the spread of the disease and leads to the heavy use of antibiotics, which contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant organisms that can infect the human population. Passage of this bill would have significant public and environmental health benefits.
Throughout your career, you have been very attentive to environmental issues. With pets of your own, I know that you also have concerns about animal welfare. Please consider supporting this bill.
If you’re looking for assistance with a personal matter (which is, by the way, something legislators can do for you, if you weren’t aware of that), make sure to mention it in the opening paragraph. Maybe you need help appealing a claims denial from a government agency, getting compensation after a natural disaster, or any number of other things. Make sure your legislator knows you are seeking assistance and provide concrete information about what you need, like a letter of support or a referral to a right person at the agency. While the legislator may not personally handle the matter, an aide will read the letter and provide assistance.
Remember: Legislators are there to serve you! You are a member of their constituency whether or not you voted for them (whether or not you are allowed to vote). That means you have a voice, and they have to listen to it. Make them work for those salaries.