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  • What is a letter to an elected official?

  • Why write to elected officials?

  • When should you write letters to elected officials?

  • How do you write to public officials?

  • Should you use e-mail?

What is a letter to an elected official?

By now you are probably looking for ways to get your issue noticed by people who have the power to help you. To get the best results, you will probably want to try several of the direct action methods discussed in this chapter. In this section, we will show you the best way to write a letter to your elected officials.

A well-written personal letter may be the most effective way to communicate with elected officials. They want to know how their constituents feel about issues, especially when those issues involve decisions made by them.

Your elected officials usually know what advocacy groups are saying about an issue, but they may not understand how a particular decision affects you. A well-written letter describing your experiences, observations, and opinions may help persuade an official in your favor.

Until a short time ago, you had two options if you wanted to contact an elected official: telephone and the mail. In the last several years, e-mail has been added and become the medium of choice. It’s fast, it gets read, and – at least in the U.S. – virtually all elected officials, from town councils to the President, use and welcome e-mail communication.

Any guidelines for writing letters in this section – the style to use, the information to include – apply to e-mail as well. A letter to your Congressman, whether it’s sent through the post office or electronically, should be formal and as well-written as you can make it. A political communication, to be taken seriously, should send the message that you care enough about the subject to take some care in writing about it.

In the days before e-mail, officials generally considered letters more important than phone calls, because they took more thought and effort. A proper e-mail letter carries the same message – this person has really thought about this, and has put some work into sending his opinion.

Why write to elected officials?

Maybe you're not convinced that writing a letter to your elected official is the best way to spend your time. There are several reasons it’s worth your while, including:

  • To explain to an official how a particular issue affects you or your group.
  • To express support for a proposed law, policy, or course of action.
  • To oppose a proposed law, policy, or course of action.

In any of the above cases, the letter may include information about the issue that the official may not have, or suggest an alternate course of action that she hasn’t previously heard about.

  • To demonstrate to an official that his constituents are aware of an issue and have a real interest in the outcome.
  • To inform an official about an issue or situation, giving background and history that she may not have.
  • To attempt to persuade an official to vote in a certain way on an issue, or to take other related action.
  • To build your reputation as a thoughtful person in the eyes of the officials, and thus make your criticism or support more influential, or to put yourself in the position of the person to be consulted when the official needs information about your issue.
  • To request a meeting to discuss the issue or some related matter of concern.
  • To thank an official for support given, or action taken.
  • To criticize an official for a past vote or action.
  • To put an official on notice that you and your group are watching his actions, and that he needs to take your votes into account at election time.
  • To ask an official to state her position on a particular issue, or to reveal her voting record.
  • To ask for help or support.

This type of letter often falls under the heading of “constituent support,” and concern individual problems with government – being denied military disability payments, for example, or being singled out for harassment by a local official.  The reason it’s included in this list is that it can sometimes lead an official to work to change procedures, policies, or laws that discriminate against or make life harder for a whole class of people – veterans, farmers, widows, etc..

Another purpose of this type of letter is to enlist the official’s support in a community or larger initiative of some sort.  This may be a request that he become a legislative champion for the effort, that he simply lend his name to the initiative’s list of public supporters or sponsors, or that he serve on a board or steering committee for the effort.

The letter may include information about the issue that the official may not have, or suggest an alternate course of action that she hasn’t previously heard about.

This type of letter often falls under the heading of “constituent support,” and concern individual problems with government – being denied military disability payments, for example, or being singled out for harassment by a local official. The reason it’s included in this list is that it can sometimes lead an official to work to change procedures, policies, or laws that discriminate against or make life harder for a whole class of people – veterans, farmers, widows, etc..

Another purpose of this type of letter is to enlist the official’s support in a community or larger initiative of some sort. This may be a request that he become a legislative champion for the effort, that he simply lend his name to the initiative’s list of public supporters or sponsors, or that he serve on a board or steering committee for the effort.

When should you write letters to elected officials?

When would you want to write that letter? Whenever an issue arises that concerns your group, but especially when:

  • You want an official to consider a certain action or policy (e.g., increasing funding for a program for senior citizens).
  • There is an upcoming vote on a policy that concerns your group. Letters are most effective when the vote is about to be taken. This is a good time to use e-mail.
  • You want to respond (positively or negatively) to a completed action or a change in policy (e.g., enacting a law that requires people to wear seatbelts).
  • You want to point out a deficiency or need in a particular area (e.g. more public transportation to the community health clinics, more police patrols through your neighborhood).
  • You need information (e.g. about what happened the last time a certain issue came up for a vote).
  • You need advice (how to approach another official, what kind of event will attract large numbers of officials to take notice, etc.). In this instance, you’d probably be writing to an official that you’ve already had positive contact with.

Another way to look at this question is to think about when a letter will have the most effect. There are particular times when letters are more likely to be carefully considered, and when officials are more likely to be responsive.

  • Just before an election. Most elected officials become extremely anxious to please when they’re running for reelection.
  • Right before an important vote. Officials will usually be receiving communication from many people on both sides of the issue when an important vote is coming up, so this is an especially crucial time to let your opinion be known.
  • Just before and in the midst of the budget process. One of the most important things that legislators, town councils, and some other bodies do is set the budget for the coming year. Whether your concern is local, regional, state or provincial, or nationwide, most of the coming year’s policy and action related to health and human services, the environment, public safety, education, transportation, and a number of other important issues is determined, not by laws, but by the amount of money allowed for them in the annual budget. If you have priorities for funding, now is the time to make them known.
  • Immediately after an official has done something you approve or disapprove of. There are two reasons why this communication should be immediate. The first is so that the action is still fresh in the official’s mind, and he can respond to your support or criticism. The second is that he will be hearing from folks on the other side, and he needs to know either that not everyone approves of his action, or that, regardless of all the negative letters, there are people out there who think he’s doing the right thing. Officials need to know who supports or objects to which of their positions. It can help them continue to work for the things you care about in the face of opposition, or can push them in that direction if they’re not doing it already.

The really crucial times to write this sort of letter are when an official is under attack for doing something you believe in – think of officials in the American South in the 1950’s and ‘60’s who supported racial integration – or has just done something outrageous – given out a billion-dollar contract in return for a huge bribe, for example. In either of these cases, the official needs to know either that you support her wholeheartedly, and will work to help her, or that you want her to resign now, and will work to have her prosecuted and jailed.

How do you write letters to public officials?

So how do you write letters to public officials, anyhow? We have a number of guidelines that should help you not only write the letter, but increase the chances that it will be actually read and taken seriously.

Decide on the recipient.

Get the name, title, and address of the official who will make the decision about your issue. Watch to make sure that all names are spelled correctly and that you have the proper address. An incorrect name counts against you. An incorrect address may mean your letter might not arrive at all.

If you’re concerned with politics or issues at all, you should make it your business to know the names and contact information (address, office phone, and e-mail) of all those who represent you, from the most local to the federal government. In the U.S., at least, you can get to know your representatives at any level of government if you make the effort. If you’re an activist, you may meet with them, or at least speak to them or their aides fairly regularly. If that’s the case, letters from you will be taken seriously.

Open the letter in an official manner.

If you are writing to an elected official, show respect for the position by using the title of the office, and the official's full name. In any other letter, use the familiar term "Dear," the title Mr., Mrs., Ms., Miss, or Dr., and the official's full name.

Example:

January 5, 2008

Title [Name of Representative or Senator]

House of Representatives [OR] U.S. Senate

Office Address

Washington, D.C. 20515

Explain the purpose for your letter.

Let your reader know immediately what your letter is about. Tell him/her why you are concerned or pleased that a particular decision is being considered.

Example: The proposed increase in the gasoline tax will make the cost of transportation unreasonably high for commuters in the metropolitan area.

Summarize your understanding of the issue/decision being considered.

State the general impact that you expect to occur if a particular decision is made.

Example: The creation of a peer-counseling program at our high school will help reduce the number of teen pregnancies in our community.

Explain your position on this issue.

Describe in detail why you feel the decision made will lead to the impact you foresee.

Example: This will provide opportunities for our high school students to discuss pressures they experience with their peers at this critical time in their lives.

Describe what any changes will mean to you, and to others.

Describe specifically the positive or negative effects the decision will have on you personally and on those you represent. The more people affected by the decision, the more convincing you may be.

Example: This program will help provide career opportunities for teenagers in our community.

Identify others who may be affected by this decision.

Tell the official which, and how many, people will be affected. Statistics can be very helpful here.

Example: A recent study showed that 80% of minors who smoke obtain cigarettes at stores that do not ask for any identification. Increased enforcement of the existing laws prohibiting tobacco sales to minors could significantly reduce the rate of smoking among our youth.

Acknowledge past support.

Mention appropriate actions and decisions the official has made in the past and express thanks for them.

Example: We appreciate your past support of the bill protecting the rights of emergency medical crews to not be tested for HIV.

Describe what action you hope the official will take.

State specifically what action you (and those you represent) hope the official will take--and by what date, if there is a deadline.

Example: We hope you realize the best course of action to protect our community's infants and young children is to vote "yes" to House Bill #689b.

If you have written a letter that opposes some action, offer an alternative.

Example: I believe that rather than increasing the number of police cars patrolling our neighborhood, a cheaper and more effective alternative would be to work with our community to develop a community-policing program.

If you have time and you are committed, ask how you can help

Example: Our group is more than willing to explore the various options in helping make our community a safer place to live.

Close and sign your letter.

Thank the official and sign your full name. Make sure your address, and phone number are included.

Check your letter for spelling and grammatical errors.

Correct spelling and grammar won't do the job by themselves, but they can help. Why not give your letter every possible advantage?

Letter-writing campaigns

So far, we’ve discussed individual letters. A letter-writing tactic that can be particularly effective is a letter-writing campaign, where dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of people write either to the same official (if they’re all in, or somehow represent people who are in, her district) or to many officials about a specific vote, policy, or budget item. This can be extremely effective, especially when the letter-writers are people who don’t usually contact their elected officials.

In Massachusetts, when funding for Adult Basic Education (ABE) and English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) was being debated in the state legislature, over a thousand ABE and ESOL students wrote letters to their representatives explaining why funding was important to them personally. At the same time, program staff and administrators, volunteers, and advocates wrote letters to their own representatives explaining why ABE and ESOL were important to their communities and to the state.

The letters from students were particularly powerful, many of them explaining that a year or two earlier, they couldn’t have written those letters. It was the opportunity to enter an ABE or ESOL program that had made the difference. Legislators responded, and funding for adult education was significantly increased.

If you want to engage in a letter-writing campaign, you have to prepare properly. Many people, especially people who see themselves as powerless and unimportant, and who may have little education, are intimidated by the thought of writing to someone in power. In many countries, writing such a letter can carry a certain amount of economic, social, or physical risk. (After a State House rally in the same year as the letter-writing campaign described above, one ESOL student was overheard to remark, “In my country, they shoot you for this.”) Even in democracies governed by the rule of law, people may be fearful of being punished for speaking out.

In addition to reluctance based on feelings of fear and intimidation, many people affected by an issue – especially those with low levels of education – can be embarrassed by their poor writing skills, or feel that they don’t have anything convincing to say. They need help putting their letters together, and they need a model to go by. The coordinators of the letter-writing campaign should be aware of what they have to do to meet these needs.

First, the campaign should contact potential letter writers with a request for letters, and a simple but complete explanation of why the campaign is needed, and what the important issues relating to it are. People can’t write letters that make sense unless they understand clearly why they’re writing. The chances are that, while advocates can – and perhaps do – go over the politics of the issue in their sleep, most people affected by it know very little about how it plays out politically, or even about how the political system handles issues. The better they understand what’s happening and the specific job their letters are expected to do, the more persuasive the letters they can write.

Along with this, the campaign should provide one or more templates for letters. A template is a pattern for the letters, illustrating the form of the letter on the page, with the sender’s and recipient’s addresses and date in the appropriate places at the top, and a formal signature at the bottom, as well as a sample of the content of the letter.

A template literally means a cut-out pattern that is used to make several identical pieces of wood, metal, or some other material that are part of something larger. A builder might use a paper or wooden template to cut a number of identical rafters to hold up a roof, for example.

In general, people affected by the issue should include:

  • A description of who they are – single working mother, person with a disability, job training participant, ex-Marine.
  • The fact that they’re residents of the official’s district, or participants in a program in his district.
  • What they want the official to do.
  • Their connection to the issue – program participant, staff person, community volunteer, parent of a child with disabilities.

Anywhere from one sentence up to a paragraph or two explaining what the issue means to them and/or how it has affected them personally. For program participants and others affected by the issue, this is by far the most important part of the letter. Officials are more often swayed by personal stories than by impersonal statistics, no matter how telling those statistics may be. If people can explain how a program changed their lives for the better, or how the lack of services has been a barrier for them, it’s likely that officials will pay attention.

Finally, campaign coordinators should make sure that those for whom letter-writing is difficult have access to help. In the Massachusetts adult education campaign, that was easy: letters were often written as part of a class, and students approached them as writing assignments, completing two or three drafts before the letter was ready to be sent. In other situations, you’ll have to make sure that program staff and others are available to encourage and empower people, and to help them write the best letters they can.

Should you use e-mail?

With the speed and ease of delivery, it's common to use e-mail and send your correspondence via the computer. Doing so, particularly for formal letters, has several advantages:

  • It is much faster than normal mail. This also makes it possible for the official to respond much more quickly.
  • It saves the trouble of addressing an envelope, buying a stamp, and mailing your letter.
  • Electronic mail is less likely to get lost on the receiver's desk.

However, note that the last can also be a disadvantage. Unless the recipient goes through the trouble to print your message, it may be gone with one tap of the delete key – and out of mind as well. If you are going to use e-mail for your correspondence, be particularly clear and emphatic about your message from the beginning.

A third possibility is sending a fax. Faxes are quick and usually reliable. Realize, however that most office fax machines are in a public area; your intended recipient is not necessarily the only person who will read your fax. Secondly, the receiver's fax machine may not necessarily print a neat, readable, professional-looking copy.

In Summary

Writing letters to elected officials is a good way to explain how an issue affects you or your group. It also can build your reputation as a thoughtful person, giving you more influence with the people in power. A letter is also a good way to get your issue noticed by people who have the power to help you.

Contributor 
Jenette Nagy

Online Resources

Action Tips provides information for communicating with public officials, and the webpage includes an example letter.

Communication Tools for Advocacy from the National Association for Gifted Children provides information on different ways to communicate with policy makers.

Contact Officials is a site provided by the United States government with links that give you contact information for the official you’re interested in contacting.

Early Childhood Advocacy Toolkit provides resources on framing your message and communicating with the media as well as policy makers and elected officials.  

Effective E-mail Communication from the University of North Carolina provides tips on professional e-mail writing and communicating via e-mail. 

How Do I Write an Effective Advocacy Letter? Is a webpage from the Hearing Loss Association of America, Delaware Chapters, and it provides information specific to drafting advocacy letters to elected officials.

10 Tips provides 10 tips on effectively communicating with legislators to make your message stand out to them.

Writing Your Elected Official is a guide provided by the Children’s Defense Fund, and it provides information on effectively communicating with elected officials.

Print Resources

Bates, D. J.(1985). Writing with precision. Washington, DC: Acropolis.

Fitch, B. (2010). Citizen’s Handbook to Influencing Elected Officials: Citizen Advocacy in State Legislatures and Congress: A Guide for Citizen Lobbyists and Grassroots. The Capitol Net, Inc. This book offers practical guidance for reaching elected officials with a variety of different communication strategies.

Homan, M.(1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks-Cole Publishing Co.

Managing correspondence--Plain letters, [available from the Superintendent of Documents, Washington, DC: 20402]

Roman,K., & Raphaelson, J. (1992). Writing that works. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

Seekins, T., & Fawcett, S. The Research and Training Center on Independent Living.(1984). A guide to writing letters to public officials: Contributing to important decisions affecting you and others. University of Kansas.

Stonecipher, H. (1979). Editorial and persuasive writings: Opinion functions of the news media. New York, NY: Hastings House.