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Tips for Engaging Elected Officials
Whether you plan to write a letter, make a phone call, or set up a face-to-face meeting, a little preparation can go a long way in helping you be an effective advocate for the issues that are important to you.
Meeting With Your Legislator
Before you make an appointment to speak with your legislator, it pays to do a little homework.
Learn About Your Legislator
Find out who your state legislators are at Find My Legislator and then click through to their profiles. Every Massachusetts citizen has one state senator and one state representative. The more you know about the legislator who you are going to lobby, the more effective you will be in your efforts. Answers to questions such as those listed below will give you a better idea of how to approach that particular legislator.
Where is their district?
What was their background prior to being elected to office?
What hobbies do they have? Check out State House Pets to learn what companion animals your legislators and their staff share their homes with.
Are they a new or seasoned legislator? Are they in a leadership position? If your state senator or state representative is in a leadership position or chairs a committee with an animal bill before it, this means they are particularly influential—which means YOUR voice as their constituent is especially influential. (Find out what committee(s) your legislators sit on by looking them up and navigating to their webpages, and then clicking on the “Committees” tab on their profile.)
What is their voting record on similar and opposite issues? Visit Animal Scorecard to get a sense of how animal-friendly your legislator is. Remember, even if they do not seem especially pro-animal, maybe they just haven’t had a constituent raise the issue with them yet! And never assume that someone is not open to differing perspectives.
What are their constituents like?
What other issues that concern you have they sponsored or voted for in the past?
Holding hearings, or testifying at hearings, on legislation.
Lobbying other legislators.
Meeting with constituents.
Campaigning for office.
Making an Appointment to Meet with Your Legislator
Your Massachusetts legislators have two offices: one is a district office and the other is at the State House. If you are planning on visiting the State Houseoffice of an elected official, try to call at least three weeks prior to visiting. It helps to know in advance the dates that the state legislature is in session prior to planning your trip. It is less likely find a senator or representative in their office on Friday, for example, as the state legislature is not in session on that day and legislators are working in their district. Check with their staff to find out when recesses are scheduled, make your appointment, and then arrange your trip.
If you are planning on meeting with your legislator in their district office, Fridays and scheduled recesses are the best time to meet with them. Some state legislators have regular district hours in the same place every week, like a library, coffee shop, or meeting room in a town or city hall. Others rotate around the district and will publish their district hours in local newspapers or on their webpage and via social media. Some have evening hours as well as daytime hours.
If meeting at the State House, know that you may be interrupted by roll call votes or other pressing business that may pull the legislator away. If you are meeting with the legislator and a staff person, the staff person will probably stay with you if the legislator is called away.
During Your Meeting
DO keep your discussion of the issue brief and to the point. Have at least two copies of any material you want to share with the legislator (one to give to them and one for you to use as a reference as you talk). Offer to leave them if they want them. Stick to a one page fact sheet, letters of support from other constituents, and newspaper articles or editorials in support of your position. If you are aware of other lengthy statistical or data-based material that supports your position, offer to share them IF your legislator wants copies. Otherwise, use them only through footnotes or references in a fact sheet.
DON’T be dismissive of staff members. If the legislator is unavailable to meet with you but a staff person who handles the issue can meet instead, go for it. The staff person is often the one with the most knowledge on an issue and they will make recommendations to the legislator. Winning over the staff member is one of the best ways to win over the elected official.
DON’T argue or burn bridges. If they are not swayed by your points and disagree with you, don’t get hostile. Keep the conversation positive. There’s always a possibility that they will change their position down the road.
DO let the legislator and/or staff person know that you appreciate their time and consideration. Thank them and let them know you will follow through with any promised material at a later date.
After Your Meeting
Write a thank-you note (email is fine). Whether your legislator has agreed or disagreed with you or was non-committal, they at least took the time to listen to you. Thank them and/or the staff person.
Follow through with any material you promised to send.
After two weeks, call to see if a non-committed legislator has now made a decision on their position. You can remind the staff person that you met with the legislator and are following through to see if your legislator has made a decision. Offer to email any additional follow-up material that may be helpful, or to re-send material that you provided initially.
Drop Us a Note!
Please send us copies of any correspondence you send or receive from your legislators. When we know what a legislator promised a constituent we can use this information as a tool in our lobbying efforts. We’re also always interested in hearing your reaction to meetings you have had with elected officials. Your comments help us to build profiles on legislators, which in turn will help others who may want to connect with that individual.
Letter Writing and Emailing
When there is time before a committee meeting or vote on a bill, writing a letter can be a very persuasive way of getting your message across to your legislator. Here are some dos and don’ts for making your letter as strong as possible.
DO make sure you give your voting address. They’ll want to be confident that you are one of their constituents.
DO be specific about the issue. List the bill number and the title of the bill, if known, and what the bill addresses.
DO know what the current status of the bill is. If you’re unsure where a state bill is in the legislative process, you can check the state’s website or our state legislation page. You can also call the Massachusetts House Clerk’s Office (617) 722-2356 or the Massachusetts Senate Clerk’s Office (617) 722-1276. To find out where a federal bill is in the legislative process you can visit Congress’s website or our federal legislation page.
DO be brief. State your position in precise words and explain why you feel that way. Don’t be afraid to make it personal. Talk about why this issue matters to you. Also let your elected official know if you have personal expertise in, or experience with, the issue.
DO be courteous. Ask politely for your legislator’s views and/or support or opposition.
DO ask that your legislator write back to you letting you know where they stand on the issue.
DO give credit where credit is due. If the legislator has been supportive of your issues in the past, make sure you acknowledge that support. Check out Animal Scorecard to see what pro- and anti-animal bills your legislator supports this session, as well as in past session. Write your legislator a thank-you letter when they come through for animals or any other issue you care about.
DON’T be threatening or rude. Even if you know that your legislator’s stance on an issue is different from yours, be polite in explaining your point of view and in asking them to change their position.
DON’T accept a non-answer. If your elected official writes back with a vague response or an “I’ll keep your thoughts in mind if this matter comes to a vote,” thank them for writing but ask for clarification about where they stand on the issue.
DON’T be discouraged. Remember that most meaningful legislation takes years to become law.
Calling your elected officials
When placing your call to a member of the Massachusetts State Legislature, you can call the legislator’s office directly or use the general number of (617) 722-2000 and ask to be connected to the correct office. If your elected official is unavailable to speak to you, ask to speak to the staff person who handles the issue you are concerned about.
DO follow all of the above tips. And also remember:
DO be polite. Staff members are assigned to handle calls from constituents and deal with dozens of callers each day. If you are polite and respectful of their time, you will find a much more sympathetic ear than if you are dismissive and rude.
DO be brief and thank them. Tell the person on the other end of the phone that you appreciate their taking your call and that you simply wanted to register your feelings on a particular issue with the elected official. You hope to have their support and will call again at a later date to see what the outcome was on the vote or debate. Thank the person for their time.
DO provide your name, address and phone number to confirm that you are a constituent and to give your legislator’s office an opportunity to get back in touch with you if needed.
What about online petitions?
We have found that online petitions have not been helpful in persuading Massachusetts legislators to take action. In our experience this is because 1) they are often not targeted correctly, either to the right elected officials or so that the legislators’ constituents are the ones that signing; 2) we all know how easy it is to sign a name and petitions will carry less weight because they don’t contain any personal reasons why the issue is important to the signer; 3) when people sign a petition, they often think they have taken enough action and don’t follow through on any other actions or methods to reach out to a legislator that are more effective.