There are many ways you can make your voice heard. Here are some tips to help you be an effective citizen advocate.
(Step one, of course, is knowing who your legislators are and how to contact them.)
Speak with your legislators
Face-to-face conversations are the most effective way of communicating with legislators. In Maine, legislators are usually very willing to meet with their constituents, especially since they are used to hearing from paid lobbyists most of the time. Outside of public hearings, legislators rarely hear from their constituents, so your in-person meeting is likely to have a significant impact. Whether meeting with your legislator in Augusta or in your district, the following tips are sure to help you in this process:
Make an appointment: If you’d like to meet with your legislator in your community, call them directly to set up a meeting. Let them know why you’d like to meet and who you are representing. If you’re traveling to Augusta, you do not necessarily have to set up a meeting, but it doesn’t hurt to do so. Chances are that you will have more time to speak with your legislator if you have a scheduled meeting.
Plan your visit: Know what you’d like to achieve out of this meeting. If you plan to meet with your legislator in Augusta, make sure the Legislature will be there that day. Find out when the House and Senate will be in session, and also look to see what committee meetings are scheduled for that day.
Be prompt and patient: Legislators are very busy people, so it’s common that they may be running late or that your meeting will get interrupted at some point. If your meeting gets interrupted, be flexible.
Be prepared: Know what issue you are going to discuss and its bill number. Bring information and materials that support your position and have copies available for your legislator. However, don’t overwhelm your legislator with materials – too many papers will be left unread.
Be brief: Time is precious during the legislative session. Expect to meet with your legislator for 5 to 10 minutes in Augusta. If meeting in your community, 30 to 45 minutes is appropriate.
Be strategic: Make sure to show the connection between what you’re requesting and the interests of the legislator’s district. If possible, let your legislator know how you or your group can be of assistance. Be sure to ask for a specific commitment (for example, to support or reject a particular bill).
Be responsive: Be prepared to answer questions or provide additional information should the legislator express interest. If you do not know the answer to a question, tell them you will get that information to them as soon as possible.
Be respectful: If a legislator doesn’t agree with you, be respectful of their position. Being rude will not help your cause. You can assertively argue your position, and express disappointment in theirs, without being disrespectful.
Be appreciative: Make sure you thank your legislator for taking the time to meet with you.
Follow-up: Write a letter to your legislator to thank them for meeting with you. If you said you would provide them with additional information, include it. It is also good to check in on any unfinished business (for example, if your legislator said they needed more time to take a position on a certain issue).
Write your legislators
After face-to-face meetings, writing is the next best way to communicate with legislators. This allows you to carefully craft your words without the pressure of an in-person meeting. It also allows legislators to read and consider your arguments without the distractions of the State House, and shows them that you are passionate enough about an issue to sit down and express your thoughts. Written letters also you to submit additional materials that support your point of view. Hand-written letters are the most effective. Here are some tips to writing effective letters to your elected officials:
Identify yourself: Immediately state that you are a concerned constituent and let your legislator know whether you are writing in a personal or professional capacity, and whether you are speaking for others. Be sure to include your name, address, phone number and e-mail address. Many legislators respond to your legislators, so your contact information is important.
Be specific: You should state the reason you are writing in the first paragraph. If your letter pertains to a specific piece of legislation, be sure to identify it accordingly (for example, LD __, HP __, or SP __).
Be focused: Address only one issue per letter and, if possible, keep the letter to one page. Include pertinent information, using facts and examples to support your position. Do not make arguments that cannot be substantiated; doing so will undermine your credibility.
Be personal: Explain how the legislation you’re writing about affects you, your family, your friends, your business or community. Again, sending hand-written or typed letters is generally more effective than sending an email.
Be clear: Let the legislator know what action you’d like them to take. If you want them to support a specific bill, say so. If you want them to vote against a certain bill, make that clear. If you’d like your legislator to follow-up with you, let them know.
Testify at public hearings
Public hearings are held for most legislative issues and provide a number of opportunities for citizens to affect public policy. Since a number of media outlets often cover public hearings, you can display this support in newspapers and on television. Statements and other materials that are submitted during a public hearing become part of the public record which must be considered by the committee. Hearings also allow you to hear and study the arguments of those who disagree with you on a topic.
Hearings can be very intense and intimidating at times, especially for high profile issues. But they are an important part of the legislative process and should not be ignored. Legislators use public hearings to gain information and insight on the issues at hand, and look to concerned citizens to provide them with the information they need to make difficult decisions. Here are some tips to help you in testifying at public hearings:
Use your time efficiently: There is often a time limit for speakers at public hearings (typically three minutes for high profile issues). Be concise and direct. Speak with others who share your position and divide the topics that need to be addressed among several people. This way, all of your concerns will be covered.
Submit supporting materials: You are allowed to submit written materials (which can include additional comments, charts, maps or information prepared by you or other experts) to help make your case. Make sure to bring 20 copies for committee members. You can also make these materials available to members of the media who may be covering the hearing.
Take notes: Try to take notes on the testimony submitted by others to track points that may need reiteration, further clarification, or rebuttal. You may address these issues during your oral testimony or through additional written comments submitted after the hearing.
Be polite: Public hearings can become very emotionally charged. You may hear some things that you strongly oppose, or things that you absolutely agree with. But it is important that you keep your emotions under control and your statement focused on points that will advance your position. Expressing your frustration about someone else’s testimony cuts into the time you have to address your important arguments and make your case.