One of the easiest—and most important—roles an activist can play is letting lawmakers on the federal, state, and local levels know how you’d like them to vote on legislation related to your cause. You may ask elected officials to introduce or cosponsor bills or amendments, or to vote for or against an existing bill. Advocacy groups can help keep you informed—through e-mail "action alerts" and the like—about the bills you should focus on and when they’ll be up for a floor vote so you can contact the elected officials that represent you. You also can track the status of a piece of federal legislation on your own, using the Library of Congress’ THOMAS Web site.
On the state level, the process of how a bill becomes a law varies from legislature to legislature, and you can generally learn about it and track bills on the Web site of your state’s parliamentary body. And on the local level, you can potentially get involved with shaping legislation in many areas of government, such as county, city council, township, municipality, and school district.
To ask a lawmaker to take action on your issue, nothing is as effective as a face-to-face meeting. Be very specific about what you’re asking the legislator to do, and get to the point quickly. You’ll probably have only a short time to talk.
Bob Willman, 59, a retired Ohio school district superintendent who now coordinates advocacy activities in the state for the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Action Network (ACS CAN), first visited the Ohio statehouse 10 years ago to speak with his legislators about increasing funding for cancer research. "I was absolutely petrified," he said. "But I saw the necessity for our voices to be heard, and now I can’t wait to meet with them."
Be sure to arm yourself with facts on both sides of the issue, counsels Wilson of the League of Women Voters. "Elected officials need your help sorting through the facts, and you need to be honest and tip them off to opposing arguments so they’re not caught flat-footed," she said.
Also, share a personal story with your legislator that shows how you’ve been affected by an issue or policy, advises Willman. A prostate cancer survivor, he is able to "address what other cancer patients and their families are going through" when he heads to the statehouse with other volunteers to meet with his district representative and state senator on the ACS CAN’s "state lobby days." He also attends an annual national-lobby day in Washington, D.C., with hundreds of other volunteers from across the county. He meets with the House member who represents his district and with his two senators. This year, he spoke with Ohio Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and encouraged him to support a bill that would give the FDA the authority to regulate the production and marketing of tobacco products. "I’ve seen that the vast majority of elected officials really appreciate hearing from us,” Willman said. “We have to remember that they’re our employees—they work for us."
Tip: Don’t be disappointed if you try to set up an in-person meeting with your senator or representative and end up meeting with a staffer instead. "Sometimes you make more inroads with the staffers than you do with the actual congressman," said Willman. "They may have more time to go into detail with you, plus they have a tremendous influence on their legislator."
You also can help sway how your elected officials will vote on a specific piece of legislation by sending a letter, e-mailing, faxing, or calling their offices. Be sure to make it clear in your communications that you are a constituent from the district.
Take the time to customize your letter or e-mail rather than just sending a form letter provided by an advocacy group. Staffers keep track of the number of form letters they receive, but if you customize your letter with a personal story that illustrates why you or your neighbors care about the issue, it’s more likely that staffers will read it and circulate it around the office. You might even be giving your legislators ammunition to help spread the word themselves, said Kush, author of The One-Hour Activist. "They need your stories to talk to the media, to other legislators, and to give floor speeches," he said. "Numbers do make a difference, however, so you’ll have a greater impact if you’re working with other activists who are contacting legislators asking for the same thing at the same time."
Tip: Your pleas will reach members of Congress faster if you e-mail them or write directly to their district offices in your home state. Sending a letter to a legislator’s office in Washington, D.C., may take an extra two to four weeks to because of post-9/11 security procedures.