The overwhelming theme of the Donald Trump presidency has been an intense amount of activism. Americans who previously glanced at politics became actively involved as a reality television star became president and began working to dismantle systems and norms the country benefitted from. With this wave of more active participants in politics came an increased interest in the best way to contact a congressperson to actually get results.
This concept was addressed at a South By Southwest panel on Monday, March 12 that featured Associate Director of the Ash Center’s Democratic Governance program Teresa Acuña, Founder and Director of TechCongress Travis Moore, and Yuri Beckelman, who serves as the Deputy Chief of Staff & Legislative Director for Congressman Mark Takano of California. They talked about what gets noticed by Congress and how tech innovations, like the Resistbot, are actually viewed by congressional offices. (Spoiler alert: Resistbot and similar text-based messages don't carry much weight.) After the panel, I spoke with Beckelman about how to get your voice heard.
The biggest takeaway is that you really should put in effort when reaching out — or, at least, "a little more medium effort." By that, Beckelman means putting thought into what you're contacting your rep about and talking about how an issue affects you personally.
There are a handful of ways to contact your representative in Congress. You can call (through their office number or through the Capitol switchboard), write a letter or email, and reach out through social media. Each of these platforms is a good way to reach your rep, although social media is trickier — I'll get into that later. Typically, these messages are seen by an intern or aide who filters through them (and takes the calls). The number one rule is that you must contact a politician who actually represents you. Do not call a politician who does not represent where you live and vote. If you do, your message does not get logged — only messages from constituents (i.e. people represented by that politician) are registered. (And another little tip in terms of getting logged: If you ask a very specific question, the office has to write it up and research it, according to Beckelman, so get creative and in-depth!)
When you leave a message, include your name and address so the office knows you are a constituent. "If you don’t tell us your address, even if you are a constituent, you don’t get logged in the system," Beckelman says. This is why reaching out over social media is riskier — Congress doesn't yet have an appropriate way to see who's a constituent on social media. "It’s a failure of Congress not better handle incoming social contact. I promise it’s something we’re working on and we think about all the time. We’re just not there," Beckelman says.
There is one caveat to the social media rule. If a politician does a Facebook live chat, Twitter town hall, Reddit AMA, or the like, "that member of Congress is sitting there, watching and hoping for questions, and we will answer them," Beckelman says. "That is the time. Find us when we’re actively engaged."
One of the best things you can do when contacting your rep is tell a personal story, according to Beckelman. If you're represented by someone who has voted against gun reform for years, for instance, don't just tell them to vote the opposite this time and hang up. Instead, tell them why a particular action (like voting a certain way on a bill) is meaningful to you.
"You probably are not going to get that immediate vote, but you will impact the way that they think about an issue," Beckelman says, adding that it can also affect the way the politician sees constituents' opinions. "If they are someone that is sympathetic to your position, even if they’ve always voted a certain way, they are looking for reasons to potentially change."
There's another benefit to telling a personal story: a politician can use it in a speech to help persuade colleagues. "We love telling a personal story," Beckelman says. "It’s much more powerful than even data."
Ultimately, sending a boilerplate message through a text service does not do much to sway a politician, according to Beckelman, and quality trumps quantity. Now, this does not mean that you should stop being involved. Getting into a habit of contacting your reps and staying engaged in politics is extremely important, and a wave of messages can show a politician that there is significant care and attention being paid on a particular issue. That said, if you're really passionate about an issue, putting in slightly more effort will increase the impact you can have.
"Sitting in your bed and typing one button is just not going to have an impact that they wanted to. But being an active member of the community makes your message the most impactful. If we know who you are, we’ve seen you at events, and you care about an issue, it means something to us. If you tell us a personal story or talk to us about something that has an actionable item to it, we want to take action on it, because you’re our constituents," Beckelman says.
Every single message does get read, "and it gets read all the way up to the member of Congress," per Beckelman, so don't feel like your call is falling into a void. If you want to help make a difference, have some patience — change takes time — and be ready to put in that medium effort. "Activism is difficult. It’s all about effort versus impact, and if we feel it’s low effort, it has a low impact on us. If you put a little more medium effort into this, it will have a much higher impact," Beckelman says.
Hey, they never said changing the country was easy.