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You Can Make a Difference

Developed by Senator James Jeffords’ Staff

Like it or not, "the squeaky wheel gets the grease!" With all of the other constituents and issues facing legislators today, don’t expect to have your perspective represented if you don’t make the effort to communicate your views.

Remember the old adage, "There is strength in numbers"? It’s not only true in life, but in politics as well! While you as an individual can work with legislators for the best interests of your district, the best chance of accomplishing your goals is to work with your organization by establishing your priorities and advocating for them together. While your entire group may not agree completely on every issue, you will build more credibility and be more effective if you speak with one voice rather than at cross purposes. Involving others from your community also adds to the strength of your message.

Key 1: Know your legislators
Knowing legislators and staff personally is the first step to having your voice heard. If you haven’t met them, set up a meeting and introduce yourself. This is especially important if the lawmaker is new. Welcome them to your district; now is the time to educate them and they’ll remember your courtesy. Establish a friendly relationship by finding common friends or interests. Don’t miss the chance to visit with your legislators in the district at town hall meetings or other events. Stop by their offices even if you are just passing through. Legislative schedules can be tricky so make an appointment if you can, and make sure to develop contacts with the legislators’ staffs.

Don’t wait until an important bill is in your legislator’s committee or on the floor to develop these contacts. Start early and as President Lyndon Johnson said, " Make friends before you need them."

Key 2: Be a source of reliable information
Specific knowledge about your district is essential if you are to be of any assistance to your legislators. The information your provide must be:
• Understandable– Remember that your legislator probably does not have the same background in the subject matter as you do.
• Accurate– It’s okay not to know the answer to a question; simply say you will find out and always follow through.
• Persuasive– Always break your proposals down to how they will positively impact the targeted population. Bottom line: Legislators need to be convinced that your mission matters.

The goal is to build credibility with your legislator so they come looking for you when they need information. Give legislators your address, phone numbers at home and work and a fax number. Often when legislators need information, time is of the essence. If a legislator asks a question and you don’t know the answer, use your resources to obtain the correct information. If you inadvertently offer erroneous information, always contact your legislator and explain the mistake as quickly as possible.

Key 3: Make your legislator experts on your district.
Don’t assume that just because legislators grew up in your state that they know how you would like them to vote on every issue of interest to you. Invite them to events, and make sure that they are on the mailing list for your newsletter. They won’t be able to attend every function, but the more time they spend with you and your organization, the more likely they are to support your cause.

Key 4: Timing is everything– know the process.
You need to know when to strike – when lawmakers are voting in committee or when you need their votes on the floor. Knowing the process makes it easier for you to target your contacts and make your voice heard.

Key 5: Ask how they will vote... and hold them accountable:
All of your hard work is for nothing if you don’t follow through when the final votes are counted. Contact your legislator and ask how they intend to vote on specific issues. If they are leaning away from your position, continue to share information that may sway their opinion or help them choose a compromise position on the issue. If you aren’t successful, don’t worry; there is always a next time. This week’s opposition is inevitably next week’s ally.
Legislators want to do the right thing; they also like public recognition. When legislators support your position, give them credit. Send them letters of thanks which you can share with the editor of your local newspaper; comment on their support publicly in board meetings; and call or stop by to visit them personally. The request for help is easier the next time if you offer appreciation this time.

Communicating Your Message:
Patience and persistence are the primary characteristics of good legislative advocates.
Building relationships and credibility are key and can be accomplished with time and effort by following theses do’s and don’ts:


  • Do your homework–know your district, the issues and your legislators.
  • Develop rapport over time. You do not need to be chummy with a legislator, but you do need to be respected.
  • Treat your legislator with the dignity and respect you expect yourself.
  • Work with a legislator’s staff. Staff members do research, draft bills make recommendations on amendments and develop expertise in areas in which their legislator cannot devote the time.
  • Develop strong grassroots support. The more people there are forming the consensus that you speak for, the more impact you’ll have.


  • Don’t be rude, offensive or argumentative. A good guideline to follow is "Will the legislator invite me back or avoid me in the future?"
  • Don’t give an ultimatum. Learn to accept rejection without destroying the relationship; this week’s enemy is often next week’s ally.
  • Don’t ever resort to name calling. If you use strong negative labels for those who oppose your proposals, you may alienate them forever.
  • Don’t expect to change a legislator’s mind immediately.
  • Don’t get frustrated. We can’t expect victory overnight. We often have to learn to rejoice in small victories.
  • Don’t take a shotgun approach. Focus on your board’s priorities for the district, rather than trying to accomplish everything at once.
  • Don’t forget that legislators are faced with hundreds of bills and thousands of constituents. While they are the elected officials with policy-making responsibilities, you are both accountable to many of the same constituents
  • Building relationships and credibility with your legislator can be difficult if you don’t communicate effectively what it is you want. This section provides a number of tips on phoning, writing and visiting with your legislators and their staff.

By Phone
Phone calls may be best when time is of the essence, ie. when a bill is up for a vote in committee. Phone calls can also be used immediately following a favorable vote to extend your appreciation.

  • Ask to speak with the legislator, but if necessary, spend some time talking with the staff person. You can also call the Legislative Access Number and leave a message for the legislator to return your call.
  • Clearly identify yourself as a board member and identify your district
  • If you have spoken to or seen the legislator recently, remind him or her of the contact. Legislators meet with many constituents and may not remember precisely when they saw or heard from them last. This can help to break the ice and lead into your reason for calling.
  • Identify the specific proposal you are calling about, by bill number if possible. Call about only one issue at a time.
  • Briefly state your position and how you’d like your legislator to vote.
  • Ask your legislator’s view on the issue or bill.
  • If necessary, offer to provide information the legislator needs to make an informed decision at the time.
  • If the legislator is unsure of his or her position or vote, offer to follow up the phone call with another call or visit.

By Letter/Fax/E-mail
Putting your thoughts in writing is important when you are introducing a complicated topic. It will allow your legislator time to mull over the issue before responding, and will help you to organize your thoughts so that you can explain them more clearly when you meet.

  • Put your mailing address and phone number on all correspondence so that the legislator can easily contact you with questions or for more information.
  • Do not use postcards.
  • Keep your letters to one issue, short and to the point. Refer to the issue specifically or by bill number, if possible.
  • Clearly state what it is you want them to do. Support a bill on the floor? Oppose a bill in committee? Draft a bill or an amendment?
  • Offer specific information on why it is important. What is the bottom line on this issue for your district?
  • Timing is critical. If the letter arrives too early, it may be forgotten before the vote. One or two days before the vote is taken is generally best.
  • Ask that the legislator state his or her position in the reply.
  • Legislators appreciate thank you notes, as they cite or use parts of them for newsletters or other constituents mailings.

By Personal Visit
Visits are important on key issues when your legislators’ vote really counts. It is more difficult to say no in person than over the phone or in a letter! They also may keep you in mind as a source of information on a specific issue if they can put together a name and a face.

Call their office or drop them a note before you visit. Let them know specifically what you wish to speak to them about, and offer them two or three alternative times you are available.

Address legislators as "Representative" or " Senator".

Legislators are often between votes and your time with them is limited. Get to the point or you may miss your opportunity.
Be prepared when you arrive. Do your homework in advance so you can speak clearly and concisely on the issue.
Have something in writing to leave behind with the legislator, preferably a one-page fact sheet on your issue and position.
Always thank legislators for their time and express interest in keeping touch, even if they disagree with your position this time.

Thank you to Senator Jim Jeffords’ office for sharing this
document with us.



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