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How does calling your elected representatives to express an opinion work? (MoMo Productions/Getty)

How Can I Call My Representative? A Step-by-Step Guide to the Process

How Can I Call My Representative? A Step-by-Step Guide to the Process

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lected officials might not always feel accessible to their constituents. But making coordinated calls to flood a representative’s phone line is one way for voters in the United States to make their thoughts known — about various causes.

Ezra Levin is deeply familiar with the process of calling up a politician. Levin is the co-founder of Indivisible, a progressive organization created in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, and said since 2016, he’s seen a lot of people who weren’t previously engaged in political activity decide to change that.

“They didn’t imagine that somebody like Donald Trump could get close to the presidency, let alone build a Republican trifecta with it,” Levin told KQED. “And so what we witnessed was a lot of folks learning how Congress works and how to effectively make their voice heard.”

Levin says that he sees this kind of “engagement with Congress coming in spikes” when it comes to constituents feeling compelled to contact their elected representatives — for example, “in moments where there is a real threat of a government shutdown, or when Trump issues the Muslim ban back in 2017, or when abortion rights are being threatened as they as they are right now, or when the Affordable Care Act is possibly going to be repealed.” In those cases, Levin says his organization then sees “surge[s] of activity, because folks are worried that Congress is going to do something, or are frustrated that Congress or the president isn’t taking action.”

‘The phone doesn’t stop ringing’

One of those spikes in political activity and direct action has come in the last several weeks in the United States.

A month ago, Hamas launched an attack into Israel from Gaza that killed at least 1,200 people, taking approximately 240 hostages, according to the Israeli government. In the weeks since, Israel’s attacks on Gaza have killed more than 11,000 people, many of whom were children, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza (a source the United Nations has deemed credible in the past.) Thousands more Palestinians have been wounded during Israeli air raids, with around 1.4 million internally displaced and a third of Gaza City damaged. (Read more about the decades-long background from NPR in their ‘Middle East crisis — explained’ series.)

In recent weeks, thousands of Bay Area residents have continued to take to the streets in support of a cease-fire in Gaza. By contrast, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi has called a possible cease-fire “a gift to Hamas,” and President Joe Biden — who is currently in San Francisco this week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference (APEC) — has so far rejected the possibility of a cease-fire.

From national organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace to local businesses like Reem’s Cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District, several progressive groups have now facilitated phone banks to urge people to call their representatives and ask for their support in a cease-fire.

Rep. Mike Thompson, who represents California’s 4th Congressional District, including counties like Napa, Solano and Sonoma, told KQED in an interview that his Bay Area constituents have been reaching out to make their thoughts known to him. Thompson said he’d met recently “with a group who believe a cease-fire is the way to go” — but that he’d also heard from “numerous other constituents throughout my district” in condemnation of Oct. 7, expressing “that Israel has a right to defend themselves and … to work to get the hostages back.” Hear more from KQED’s podcast The Bay on how local elected officials stand on Israel’s siege of Gaza.

A recent Huffington Post story reported that Democratic staffers are currently seeing an “unprecedented” number of calls and emails supporting a cease-fire and that offices were unprepared for it. According to the story, one anonymous staffer says, “The phone doesn’t stop ringing at any point in the day,” several offices were told to let calls go to voicemail.

So what does ‘call your reps’ actually mean?

If you want to contact your elected officials to express your opinion on something, the process — who to contact, how to do that, what to say, and what kind of response you’ll receive — can seem confusing, especially if it’s your first time doing it.

Levin acknowledges that it “can be very difficult to wrap your arms around something as complex as the United States federal government and how representative democracy works,” but said he believes “it’s only healthy for democracy, regardless of what your ideological persuasion is, for a lot of folks in the country to understand exactly how the government works — and how they can fit into it.”

Public reaction and this kind of direct address to elected officials “certainly has an impact,” said Janine Zacharia, former Washington Post Jerusalem bureau chief who is now a lecturer at Stanford University’s Department of Communication. From the White House to members of Congress, “everybody watches public sentiment,” she said.

KQED spoke to Levin and Seth Morrison, a Bay Area resident and the Bay Area chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace Legislative Work Group’s coordinator, on what constituents should know about calling their representative’s office in support or criticism — of any cause.

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How do I find my elected officials’ contact details?

You can find your state senator, state assembly member, or congressional representative through this California state government website. Advocacy groups may also have their lists — for example, Indivisible’s ‘Contact Your Reps’ list for San Francisco residents.

Your federal-level elected officials include Sens. Alex Padilla and Laphonza Butler and representatives in the House — as well as the President himself.

Your state-level elected officials are politicians like Gov. Gavin Newsom, assembly members, and state senators.

Despite their similar titles, federal senators and state senators are two different positions and scopes of power.

When should I contact my representative versus my senator?

As a quick government refresher, a representative is in the House and leads a slice of the population within the state (although sometimes the same town has different representatives). Your senator, on the other hand, represents the entire state.

Levin said that, in most cases, when you want to express your concerns, you would call both your representative and your senator — although “there are special circumstances where you would probably want to focus on one or the other.”

“One example of this would be when we’re talking about the confirmation of federal judges,” Levin said. “The House does not have a role in that. It’s fully done by the Senate.”

More Guides From KQED

But for the vast majority of legislative questions, it is both the House and the Senate that get to vote. For those who want to dig a little deeper into special circumstances, you can look up where your House member or senator has power by which committee they sit on. (You can find that information on Congress’s website.)

“Sometimes it’s not the full House or the full Senate that is voting for a particular piece of legislation, but instead is being considered in one of these committees,” Levin said. “So, for instance, if you’ve got a representative who happens to be on the Budget Committee, and the Budget Committee is first going to be considering the budget before it goes to the full House, you could focus your attention on that member — because they’re going to exercise an additional amount of power at that first step before it goes to the to the Senate, or before it goes to the full House.”

Seth Morrison with Jewish Voice for Peace also advised people to try both approaches when contacting their reps about any issue. However, he said senators are harder to move since they represent the entire state and are up for election every six years. (Members of Congress are up for election every two years.)

“So if you have a higher-level issue,” Morrison said — like air pollution throughout the state, for example, and “if you have support from around the state, definitely go to the senator’s office.”

If you would like a politician to take up your personal case, whether it involves Medicare (MediCal in California), Social Security, or the Veterans Administration, “the senator’s office can sometimes have more weight than the representative’s office,” Morrison noted.

Photo of a person wearing a pink shirt holding a black cellphone as if dialing a number. Their face is not visible.
If you haven’t contacted your elected officials before, it can be confusing knowing where to start. (Tim Robberts/Getty)

Should I also call representatives other than my own?

Probably not. Since representatives are focusing on their reelection, they will likely only heed calls from their constituents.

Levin said people from other states may read or watch the news and feel strongly about the policies and positions of another state, compelling them to call that district’s representative. However, he said he’s also familiar with how staffers directed these messages from his own time as a congressional staffer prior to starting Indivisible — and says, “We called it the recycling bin because it was the recycling bin.”

“We just did not respond to folks from outside the district,” Levin said. “So focusing on your own representative or your own senator is a great first place to start.”

“And that’s not a knock against those other representatives or senators from the other states or districts,” he clarified. “It’s literally how our representative democracy is structured.”

Who will answer my call or email, and what will they do with it?

Levin said if you are making a call, it will likely be picked up by an intern or a young staffer — and he knows that this makes some folks concerned they’re “not having influence,” or that they might worry “‘‘Oh, there is a 20-year-old who’s answering the phone — how much impact could this actually have?’”

“But any competent congressional office is monitoring all of the incoming communication at their office,” stressed Levin. “Which means that intern or that junior staffer is taking down your information: Who you are, what your address is, what your concerns are.”

Levin said the staffers then enter that information into a database that the office maintains. Good congressional offices — “ones that hope to do a good job proving to their constituents that they’re actually listening” — keep track of that information, he said. And on a regular basis, those staffers tally up communication from constituents to tell senior staff how many calls they received and the breakdown of who was for an issue and who was against it.

While calls and emails like this may not immediately shift the opinion of the member of Congress, they will factor into their “political calculus,” Levin explained.

“Every House member, every Senate senator is waking up every morning thinking, ‘How am I going to get reelected?’” Levin said. “And that gives constituents, particularly organized groups of constituents, a fair amount of power.”

What do I actually say or write when I’m contacting my representatives?

You can call, email or send a letter to your representative. (People on social media have also suggested using faxing to make their representative’s office deal with physical requests and concerns. Faxzero is one way to do this online.)

Levin said calling on the phone is worthwhile — and can be “relatively easy” to do. He said you can talk for a minute or so, and advises you to make sure to:

  • Give the staffer your name and address — so they can verify you are a legitimate constituent.
  • Request a response in writing “so that they actually have to look at what you said and take time to write a response to that,” Levin explained.
  • If they do not respond after a few days, follow up and say you still feel passionately about your issue: “‘Hey, I wrote two or three days ago, still haven’t heard — this issue is still really very much on my mind, in the minds of many of the people I’m talking to in our community. I would love to hear a response,’” Levin said as an example. Most congressional offices have “pretty sophisticated” constituent response systems, Levin added, so they should be writing back.

“You do not need to feel like you are the world’s preeminent expert on whatever issue it is that you’re calling on,” Levin said. “You want to be reasonably informed, and you want to know what you’re asking for, but it is okay for your legitimacy to come from the fact that you are a constituent, and they are in office to represent you.”

How can I make sure I get my point across?

Your passion for an issue might feel overwhelming once you get on the phone. But Morrison and Levin both advise callers to stay measured once they are talking to a staffer.

“When you’re building a relationship, it’s sometimes hard, but be polite,” Morrison said. “These are staff people. They’re doing their job.”

Be aware that the staffer you’re speaking to “cannot commit the senator or the representative” to a particular position then and there, advised Morrison. “Recognize that they have their policies and procedures.”

Levin said even if one’s anger is reasonable, a caller may be written off.

“Usually offices will flag those folks [who curse or threaten staffers] and refuse to interact with them,” he said. “You want to come off as a reasonable, informed constituent that you are and try to make your opinion persuasively based on your own experience and your own consideration of the issue.”

While you can“be firm in your opinion, and be firm in requesting a response,” Levin noted that “politeness actually does work well with these offices.”

Morrison added it’s all a matter of frequency and volume — having many people call and email their elected officials.

What about town halls? How do they work?

Levin said one very common thing both House and Senate members have historically done is hold regular town hall meetings where the public could go and ask their politicians questions. In his experience, these town halls were generally not well attended before the election that made Donald Trump president.

Remember that the volume of public response matters — so Morrison advises, “If the congressperson has a town hall meeting in your district, bring ten people to the town hall meeting and ask your question.” The “bottom line is: They want to get reelected,” he said. “And so if there are large groups of people in their district that disagree with them, they need to hear [that.]”

What if you look on your representatives’ website and see they haven’t held a town hall or public event to engage with constituents in a while? In this situation, Levin said it is a reasonable request to nudge them for one.

“Your representatives and senators should be expected to show up and talk to you because they do, in quite a literal sense, work for you,” he said. “They are employed to represent you.”

For representatives who aren’t responsive, Levin said some groups have organized “empty chair town halls, ” where constituents organize the meeting and invite members of Congress to attend.

“And if they don’t show up, they’ve got a cardboard cutout and an empty chair representing them,” he said. “I remember one example in Michigan where they brought a live chicken on stage to represent the member because he just refused to show up.”

“That kind of name-and-shame tactic can be useful in encouraging your member of Congress to actually listen to constituents,” Levin said.

A person in a white coat and red beret sits at an outdoor table on the phone, writing on a notepad.
If you’re looking to contact your elected officials, who you should contact can depend on what you want to discuss with them. (Getty Images)

Do I still need to do anything if I’m actually happy with my representative’s position?

Let’s say that you do, in fact, appreciate your representative’s action or stance on an issue. Levin said that as a former staff member, any messages of support were much appreciated since they were so rare in an onslaught of emails and calls — sometimes even printed and directly handed to the chief of staff.

However, you could appreciate your representative’s position but worry about the position of the neighboring district’s representative. If this is the case, Levin said you can ask your representative to apply pressure to that district’s representative — although they will likely only do it in the case that the neighboring district belongs to the opposing party (that is, Democrats will not likely travel to another Democrat’s district.)

Some representatives may even travel into the neighboring district and hold their own public town hall — if the latter’s representative is unwilling to talk about the issue. That action has two benefits, Levin said: “One, it highlights the fact that that member in a neighboring district has an unpopular position. And two: It builds constituent support in that district to apply pressure to that member.”

What if I want to meet with my elected official in person — say, about a personal case?

Morrison said it was important to start your outreach with the member of Congress’ staff.

“Congresspeople get hundreds, if not thousands, of inquiries every day — and their staff are a key part of the team,” Morrison said. “And the best way to get a meeting with the congressperson is to first meet with their staff.”

There are two sets of staff for a member of Congress, Morrison explained. District staff works on areas like Social Security, Medicare (Medi-Cal in California) and Veteran’s Affairs. These district staff will usually be your first point of contact and are called ‘constituent services.’

The other set of staffers are those working on policy-level decisions — and they’ll often be based in Washington, D.C.

Remember, staffers won’t commit their boss to a position on anything in the moment. Rather, Morrison said, a staffer will tell you something like“‘Thank you so much for coming. The congressperson is very concerned about your views.’”

“But you can rest assured that they will pass the information on to the D.C. office,” Morrison said.

If you ask the district office to look into your personal case, like Medi-Cal, you will likely need to fill out a form to give a member of Congress permission to investigate it. After a week or so, you can follow up with a call.

For policy-related issues, you must also fill out the form to meet with the D.C. staff. This is normal government etiquette, Morrison said. He recommends filling out the form and explaining whether you are an individual or part of a group and why you want to meet. There is a good chance those staffers are overburdened, so be realistic that you may need to do it a few times, Morrison explained.

“If you’re new to this, they will come back to you and say, ‘Gee, the congressperson is really, really busy. We’re in session right now. Could you meet with the staff person? My advice is, agree to that,” Morrison said. “We can’t all meet with the congressperson on every issue … Be prepared for a very concise meeting.”

Because of their workload, a staffer will most likely offer you a short time slot with them — 15 or 20 minutes, says Morrison.

In this situation, “accept whatever they offer and be tight,” Morrison said. “If they offer you a 20-minute meeting, plan [for] 15.” Make sure you concisely present your issue, he advises, and be clear that there are a lot of constituents experiencing the same thing if that’s accurate. “Follow up with an email, but also make clear that your goal is to meet with the member. Because that’s really where decisions get made.”

Morrison said it is appropriate to ask for a staff person’s title and email when you meet with them to send a follow-up email.

What if I feel like I’m getting nowhere with these private communications?

If you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall with the office and not being listened to, Levin said it could be time to get public attention for your position.

“Make it difficult for them to just ignore you because it is extremely easy for a representative or a senator to ignore a single constituent,” Levin said. “A typical House member represents somewhere on the order of 750,000 people. A California senator represents nearly 40 million people. One constituent is easy to ignore.”

But groups of constituents are far more difficult to ignore, he said: “Particularly groups of constituents that are getting positive press for the position that they hold, and the senator representative does not hold.”

Levin said showing up at rallies, gathering neighbors and writing op-eds for local press directed at a member of Congress are other ways of grabbing their attention in the public. On the latter tip, Levin noted that some staffers in congressional offices are charged with the task of combing through the local press in the district that mentions the member of Congress — all to be put in a binder and sent to higher-ups.

Seth Morrison from Jewish Voice for Peace said, “civil disobedience is always a possibility.”

“You should consider it carefully and think about the pros and cons,” Morrison said. “But if you and a good group of people are deeply committed to an issue — if you’ve done your research and if you have tried through normal channels and not gotten a response — civil disobedience is something you should think about.”

Civil disobedience includes attending rallies — and KQED has a guide from 2022 on your rights as a protester in the Bay Area.

Morrison himself has been involved in several actions to get members of the House and Senate to sign a resolution calling for a cease-fire, including an attempt to gather at Senator Alex Padilla’s offices — which was closed to them on Nov. 2.

He said freedom of speech and protest are valuable American tenets.

“Whether it is a domestic or foreign issue, it is very important that you educate your members of the House and Senate,” Morrison said. And while he says he will “always suggest starting with the normal procedure” of reaching out to elected officials through the channels described above, Morrison said, “If the normal procedure is not working, and if you care enough about an issue, take to the streets.”

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