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Are persuasive arguments when writing to elected officials superfluous?
March 29, 2011 10:06 AM   Subscribe

When I write to my elected officials, do they care WHY I support or oppose something?

When I write to my elected officials, how much value is there in explaining why I support or oppose something?

Is the staff just stacking the letters/emails/phone messages in two piles, Oppose and Support? Is my carefully crafted rhetoric actually getting read, or influencing anything?

Is the answer different for local officials (Board of Supervisors) vs. state legislators vs. US Congress and Senate?

Basically, I'm wondering this: I can turn out a "I support X issue. Please vote yes on bill 12345." letter or phone call in much less time than it takes me to compose a whole statement about it. Do the two approaches basically count the same in my official's eyes anyway?

I'm especially interested in answers from people who have worked closely with elected officials.

Many thanks!
posted by kristi to Law & Government (17 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
I haven't worked for an elected official but I imagine that it would be helpful to put why. One reason I can think of is that perhaps there is misinformation on the particular issue. For example, during the healthcare debate, it's likely that elected officials received countless emails and such from constituents saying that they opposed the bill because they opposed death panels. Such letters would have indicated to the elected official that they really needed to do a better job communicating the facts.
posted by kat518 at 10:14 AM on March 29, 2011


I had a job opening mail for a congresswoman about ten years ago. The protocol was to sort all of the incoming correspondence by issue, and then into pro and con on each issue. Everyone got the same form letter response unless they were famous or spoke on behalf of an influential group. I was 19 years old, and I was the only one who read the actual letters unless something really stellar jumped out at me. So no, in general, it doesn't matter whether your letter is convincing or well-written or contains your reasons. The office, at least in my experience, is merely looking for a tally of opinions.
posted by decathecting at 10:20 AM on March 29, 2011 [2 favorites]


Kind of.

You know what gets immediately tossed? Those form letters and emails. Things that take all of two seconds to send. Also, anything that looks like an angry rant with no connection to grammar or legibility.

Everything else gets sorted and looked at. In the end, though, the letters that look and read like they took time get read. So, maybe it's not necessarily what the reason is, but that you took time to draft a cohesive reason in the first place.
posted by General Malaise at 10:21 AM on March 29, 2011


Based on my past 4 yrs experience working with a municipal politician, I would say your rationale matters but be succinct and write your own text whenever possible.

All the ones from the same autofilled website go in the same pile. Mr Sleeve used to have to write the replies for provincial Ministers, and while it's easier to respond to the boilerplate, it's definitely less inpactful.

Sometimes, your goals can be achieved in other ways or partially. Plus, your level of interest may inform future decisions.
posted by Heart_on_Sleeve at 10:23 AM on March 29, 2011


An answer in several parts (I have worked for members of the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives):

1. Your elected officials on the Federal level at least don't read your letters. They have staff people who organize the correspondence and who either designate them for an already-written form response (or combination of form paragraphs, based on the content of your letter) or, if you're lucky, write you a tailor-made response. Or, you know, get lost in the shuffle, maybe read, but never responded to. Those people are called Legislative Correspondents (or "LC") and they're not quite the lowest people on the totem pole on Capitol Hill. Every once in a blue moon, an elected official will read a constituent letter. The only time I've seen that happen is when the letter is particularly humorous or when it came from someone very important.

2. The LCs only cares about the content of your letter insofar as it guides what response she or he will prepare. If they're good at their job, they will pay close attention to your reasons and arguments and respond coherently to them. I would estimate that about 10% of the LCs on the Hill are competent enough and have the time and interest to do that.

3. Nevertheless, a particularly intelligent, well-written letter or one with very complex legal questions or issues that are raised intelligently and clearly will, fairly often, be brought to the attention of someone higher up the totem pole than the LC, including, sometimes, the Chief of Staff, Legislative Counsel, or other legislative aides. These are the people who make a lot of decisions that steer or guide the Member's agenda. (These are the people who, for example, would ever get a speaking part on The West Wing.) You're better off getting your opinion to those people than to the Member anyway.

4. Members of Congress do, quite often, keep track of the number of constituent letters they receive in support of or in opposition to a given issue. If lots of people write to say they support X, the Member will note that. Now, if it's clear that people wrote to say they support X only because some organization the Member doesn't like much put the people up to it or that the people who wrote the letters really have no idea why they were told to support it, then the Member will take that into account, as well. Not all Members of Congress are stupid, after all, and even the stupid ones usually have at least a few semi-smart people on staff.

When I worked for one very high-profile committee member, there were often letters that presented very interesting or nuanced legal issues that were given to senior attorneys or others in the legal staff to respond to. They didn't necessarily influence the Member's position on anything, but they did get considered, read, and responded to by the most senior and influential staff people (i.e. experienced senior attorneys, rather than 24-year-olds fresh out of college).
posted by The World Famous at 10:31 AM on March 29, 2011 [10 favorites]


I'm an elected official. Here are some reasons many electeds like to see a rationale rather than just "I oppose X."

-- You may misunderstand the issue. If many others have the same misunderstanding, that helps me craft my argument in favor of X.
-- if your rationale is similar to many others', I may find that more persuasive.
-- if your rationale is dissimilar to many others, that's good info too.
-- I will get a better sense of your passion for the issue.
-- Explaining your reasoning will give your letter a personal feeling, which separates your letter from the robo-letters. No, that doesn't mean you will stop getting robo calls from politicians every other October.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 10:38 AM on March 29, 2011 [5 favorites]


Oh, one more thing to add to my answer above: Almost nobody ever asks the LCs whether any letters have raised any interesting or compelling arguments lately. One Member I worked for had such a huge staff and separate committee staff that people could work for him for years and never meet him and only have a passing acquaintance with anyone on staff with any influence or authority with regard to policy. So convincing the LC that you're right really doesn't do any good. The key is convincing the LC that you're a great communicator with a very interesting question that is well-presented and that the LC can't possibly answer without sending the letter up to someone who knows more than they do.
posted by The World Famous at 10:41 AM on March 29, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had a summer internship for my Congressman. That was back in the dark ages, but FWIW, we would tally and log all correspondence from constituents (i.e., people with an address in our district) and the Congressman would regularly get a report about the volume of correspondence on various issues.

We would generally sort out non-form letters and route them to the legislative assistant responsible for that particular issue. Most of the time the LA would respond with a form letter (or instruct the interns to compile a form letter).

The vast, vast majority of issue-related constituent correspondence was tallied and the Member never read it. The tiny percentage of issue-related correspondence that got further attention from the LA's was either from a known source within the district, sent directly to the LA, or otherwise brought to the LA's or staffmember's assistant.

So for instance, a constituent writing to the Member about an issue gets their opinion tallied and logged. An organization that has their act together and knows that Congressman Smith is interested in / working on a bill about X will contact Mary, Congressman Smith's LA working on issue X, and try to catch HER ear about their interests, etc.

On preview, yeah, what The World Famous said.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 10:41 AM on March 29, 2011


I've worked in ministerial correspondence in Canada at the federal level.

In my experience, it depends on the letter and the issue. If the office is getting a ton of mail on a single subject, then your letter is not going to get much in the way of individual, personal attention; on the other hand, the volume of mail on that subject will get noticed. The number of pieces of correspondence for and against the issue will be tracked. But you're probably going to get a standardized form response.

Someone will read your letter, and that someone will figure out which form response you will get based on that letter, but it probably won't be your elected representative. The office I worked in got tens of thousands of letters a year; it's not realistic to expect a cabinet minister to read and respond to every letter individually.

On the other hand, I've seen single letters get direct results, even letters sent by members of the general public. These were often letters about something under the minister's control. A response prepared by staff was sent up to the minister's office for signature; the minister or his staff basically took action after having read the incoming letter.

Under certain circumstances, in other words, a single letter can be effective, but it really depends on a lot of things, including how many other people are writing.

Also note that in my experience a correspondence office may have a policy of responding to every letter that comes in, but another office may have a policy of not responding to form letters, auto-generated click-here-to-contact-your-representative messages, or letter-writing campaigns.

Otherwise, I don't disagree with what else has been said here so far.
posted by mcwetboy at 10:45 AM on March 29, 2011


My wife was a congressional staffer a while back and she gave pretty much the exact same answer that The World Famous did. She also added that letters are more likely to get read if they concern a matter that the elected official is involved with (for example is on the banking committee) even if it is not from a constituent. The best way to get your letter read by someone important is to write to one of the lawyers working for the relevant committee (they are the ones who actually write the legislation); if it is noteworthy they may bring it to the attention of a congressman.

Many of the physicians I work with were actively involved in working with politicians at the state and federal level during the health care debate and their take was that the best way to be heard was to be a big campaign donor; my wife confirms this. One time she took a call from a corporate bigwig in his private jet and took a message because her boss was on the floor at the time. When he got the message he was furious and told her that for this person she should have sent a page to get him off the floor to take the call. So the quality of your argument is less important than who you are.
posted by TedW at 10:46 AM on March 29, 2011


Local elected official here, school board:

As a local official, I read every e-mail/letter I get, and I respond to (almost) all of them. (Now and then I get one where I can't think of a way to begin my reply other than, "Look, crazypants ..." and I think it's probably better not to.) I pay more attention to letters that are rational and well-thought-out. I also take more seriously letters from people I've spoken with before or know at least in passing; when someone has written me thoughtfully in the past on an issue, I tend to remember their name and if they write me again, I read more closely because of their past good sense. Another really good strategy is telling me how a particular change affects people "on the ground" that "higher ups" might not be as aware of ... "We are concerned that a change to this policy could negatively impact children with IEPs, such as my son who blah blah blah."

One thing that's common with local issues is that people have only started paying attention when it's down to the wire and about to affect them personally. To them it seems like we're making a "sudden" decision that's unresearched and it's MADDENING when that's the complaint. We've been discussing this for a YEAR, you basically think school board is too boring to pay attention to, and now that you've suddenly found out about it, you think that we are acting equally suddenly. Really, you just pay poor attention to local politics. It's usually equally clear that the writer doesn't understand the issue or only understands one small part of the issue. For example, we voted last night on two school closings and half a dozen program changes/moves, and one of the program changes brought parents out in force to support their program, alleging we'd done no research and given them no warning (it's been under discussion for three years and under discussion this year since September), had given parents no information (a plan had been published and written about in the paper), and it was very, very clear they had no understanding of our budget constraints (dire), of other changes in the district that were cutting much more deeply, or of any of the surrounding situation. On the one hand I am endlessly sympathetic towards parents who want the best for their children. On the other hand, getting up and screaming at me (or writing to me) because I haven't "done any research" or talked to the public at all when I've been discussing this, in a variety of badly-attended public forums, for TWO AND A HALF YEARS is unlikely to win my sympathy. If it's SUDDENLY come to your attention, why not give me a call or write me an e-mail seeking more information? I'm happy to have that discussion, and then you can write a much better-considered letter on your support or opposition.

I'm really put off by histrionics, rhetorical questions ("Would YOU send your child to a school that did X?" "Um ... yes? I live two blocks from it?"), threats to move if we do or do not do X. (I have yet to see one of these threats pan out.) I'm also a little tired of the formula, "I'm a taxpayer, and I think ..." I assume everyone who writes to me is a taxpayer. Who are all these non-taxpayers lurking around such that we must differentiate? Even immigrants who don't vote pay sales tax and property tax. It doesn't annoy me, I just find it slightly odd. It makes more sense to me when people say "As a resident of $AREA" or whatever. I got a bunch of letters on this most recent round that said things like, "As you're clearly unaware, your yearly operations budget is $X." Um, no, I'm clearly aware, and if you'd like to sit down, I will explain to you the intricacies of levying and funding for schools in our state and why X% of that budget can only be used for Y, and why Z is not touchable for Q, and so on. (In fact, this is how a lot of my phone calls go. "You should use money X for thing Y!" "That would be awesome, but by law we can only use money X for thing Z." "Oh ... really? That kinda sucks." "No kidding.")

"Let me tell you about my child ..." followed by a WALL OF TEXT makes me inwardly groan. Being succinct does count; "The music program has made my child more engaged in school and vastly improved his behavior" with a couple supporting details tells me exactly as much as three pages relating his entire school career and the impact of the music program on it.

Letters I get earlier in the process probably get more thorough replies; as we get farther into a controversy the viewpoints become well-established and my replies get more boilerplate because I've already responded to this argument sixty times. Also I can tell when they've been planned as a group (like the PTO all gets together to write similar letters), and, for me, a single letter signed by the whole PTO makes more impact, with perhaps individual members sending short e-mails with extra points. Reading 20 of the same letter makes your eyes glaze over. I actually get actively annoyed on the rare occasions we get a huge number of copies of EXACTLY THE SAME FORM LETTER -- I got 400 of the same Xeroxed checkbox form letter last week! -- because that's a huge number of dead trees for something you could have done with a petition, and it gives me virtually no information.

I always read and extra-thoughtfully reply to letters from children and students, and those make a big impact on me, particularly the ones from high-school students that are well-argued and passionate. I also tend to pay a little more attention to letters from prisoners, I guess because I'm impressed by someone who cares enough about his kid to write from prison about issues that impact his kid.

Anyway, I read them all, they often bring up points I might not have thought of, and I try to respond to every single one with information, my reasons, or whatever. I pass on information that's new to me, and I send questions I can't answer to the appropriate people to try to get an answer.

And apologies for my own, non-succinct wall of text!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:05 AM on March 29, 2011 [15 favorites]


And then, I think of the employee I had who got a phone call from the Senator's staff, telling her: the Senator showed your letter to President Obama.

The poor woman nearly fainted.

It may be a bit of a lottery, but some folks win.
posted by ES Mom at 11:35 AM on March 29, 2011


Okay. Here in the Boston area we had some mega-issues with our public transportation in January. I commute with my two year old, and it not.a.good.thing to wait for half an hour in below freezing weather with a two year old for a train that should have come twenty-five minutes ago.

So I wrote my state representative. I sent an e-mail and I sent a hard copy of the letter.

I received the general form response on that issue, but strongly worded with exactly how seriously my representative was taking this issue.

Then I found out that he was attending a meeting with several transportation officials, and the day of the meeting, I called to ask if there were any outcomes or statements that could be shared. The person who answered remembered my letter and said she'd let me know.

Less than a day later I received an e-mail from my representative's chief of staff, who I have been in pretty close contact about this issue since. It has been a wonderful experience for me, and I definitely know that not only my issues with the transportation fail are being taken seriously, but that everyone's are. Even if they haven't vocalized it to their representative.

I wish I could say I've had the same luck with my federal representatives and senator. The few times I've written them, I haven't even received a form response. But at the sate level, I've had nothing but a truly amazing response.

I say write why you are in favor or opposed to a particular bill, with the bill's number, but keep the letter to a thoughtful page or less. Send both an e-mail and a hardcopy. Include all your contact information. And don't be afraid to follow up with a phone call later on. Government officials serve YOU. Don't be discouraged if you don't get the response you were hoping for, but also don't think that doesn't mean your letters aren't being paid attention to.
posted by zizzle at 11:44 AM on March 29, 2011


My Georgia state representative personally replied to my e-mail within the hour earlier today. Admittedly, it was only a minor administrative issue, but it's clear she pays close attention to her inbox.

And, at least here in Georgia, it's easy to take a step beyond just writing a letter. Testifying before a House or Senate committee meeting is as easy as showing up 15 minutes early and putting your name on the signup sheet. (Admittedly, it's a bit more nerve-wracking than writing a letter.) Speaking personally to a senator or representative is as easy as showing up at their office, catching them while they're walking around the Capitol (they're not offended; they're used to people "stalking" them), or requesting that a page pull the individual out of the Senate or House chamber (if in session) to speak with you in the hallway.
posted by SpringAquifer at 6:42 PM on March 29, 2011


Oh, so to answer your question: Yes. I've never had the same luck with a U.S. congressperson (admittedly, I've never actually worked at that level), but my state representatives have tended to be very responsive and thoughtful. They certainly consider your reasoning.
posted by SpringAquifer at 6:48 PM on March 29, 2011


Worked for USHR member, committee, and officer (latter irrelevant to the question, but still...) and and an elected city official.

Yes, they do.

And how every office handles it is different. Members, districts/jurisdictions, and issues are different. Very different.
posted by jgirl at 6:54 PM on March 29, 2011


Thank you thank you thank you. Your answers are so helpful. (Sorry to be so heavy on the best answer button, but seriously, everyone's input was so great.)

I love AskMe.

Thank you all!
posted by kristi at 1:14 PM on April 2, 2011


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