This is Part 2 in our Citizen Activist series. Read Part 1 here: What is a Citizen Lobbyist? – Conservative Ladies of Washington
The most vital participation a citizen lobbyist can make is contact their elected officials at every level of government. Although some people may feel intimidated about doing so, we should understand that our public officials work for the citizens. Still, there is a protocol to such contact. Most importantly is to not waste the official’s time. That is why you should know the topic from beginning to end and be specific about what you want the official to do. Next, make sure you are reaching the right person. Is your issue a City, State, or Federal issues? It could be a combination, so educate yourself in order to communicate to the right people. Find out who are your state and U.S legislators. It’s easy to check. Just log on to your state government website, type in your zip code, and in most states the website will direct you right to the correct legislator in your district.
Investigation is easier these days because every branch of government has a website. For instance, here in Washington State, the website is leg.wa.gov. From there, a person can get information on bills, committees, scheduled hearings, and floor sessions. There are separate pages within the website specifically for the house and senate republicans and democrats. Further, each legislator has a personal page and that page shows what bills they are sponsoring. When Congress is in session, they will be 4,000-5,000 bills for them to consider. It’s simply impossible for them to understand every issue. In many instances, they are instructed by their caucus on how to vote.
In order to be an effective citizen lobbyist, a person has to think from the perspective of a legislator. According to the Family Policy Institute of Washington State, “To influence the behavior of a legislator, there needs to be knowledge of what motivates their decisions.”
Fundamentally, there are three types of legislators: The first is the legislator that agrees with the issue and is participating on the same team. The second legislator is equally against the issue and on the opposite side. Then there is the third legislator that sits squarely in the middle. It is this third legislator that determines what issues get voted on and is the deciding vote on controversial bills. He or she is the person who needs to be persuaded on the issues.
There are four distinct ways to educate a legislator:
- Policy Arguments
When approaching a legislator, it is important to understand their thinking and motivation on key issues. The number one deciding factor with many votes is, “How will it impact their reelection?” The next question is, “Do they have a conviction about the issue?” If they do—one way or another—it will be difficult to make a persuasive argument. If there is no conviction about the issue, the legislator will consider your arguments.
Now, to a legislator, thinking about an issue is not the same thought process as a vote. A voter looks at an issue from deeply held values. A legislator—especially those in the middle—will ponder several things before casting a vote:
- Interest groups
Will the vote affect the interest groups that are giving them money?
Will the vote jeopardize future leadership positions within the party?
- Peer Groups
What kind of consequences will come from peers and associations?
- Impact on Position in Caucus
Will the vote upset the party line and caucus?
- Higher Office
Will the vote impact future chances for higher office?
A citizen lobbyist needs to identify and get to know the legislators who can be persuaded—those in the middle. Build a respectful relationship with your legislator, not a combative one. The middle legislator needs to become an ally. Work on discovering their focus and goals for their term. Getting involved with issues that are bi-partisan is a good head start in relationship building. The goal is to build bridges, not burn them. Simply screaming, “Our rights are being taken away and this country is going to hell,” is not going to advance a cause with the people who have the authority to change the situation. In this year of 20/21, establishing any level of relationship with those on the other side of the isle will be difficult, but not impossible. Our kindness and sincerity will go a long way.
The first step in advocating and lobbying for an issue is thorough and in-depth knowledge of the topic. If all a person knows about a topic is some strange headline from social media, how can that person answer in-depth questions on the topic? Studying all aspects of the topic is important to becoming an effective advocate. With every Legislative issue, there are people who are for it and against it. It is important to know:
- Who is in leadership on both sides of the issue?
- Why are some for advancing the issue and why are some against advancing the issue?
- What are the history and current status of the legislation concerning the issue?
- What are the barriers to passing the legislation?
After fully understanding the issue and preparing for every possible question, there are several ways to bring attention to the topic. Those ways will be addressed in part three of Citizen Lobbyist.
Mary Salamon is the author of Government and Its People- How the Church can Participate in Government and the children’s version, Government in the Bible. She resides in the Pacific Northwest and was the publisher of Marysville Tulalip Life Magazine. She served as the Washington State Leader for the Governors Prayer Team and a regional leader for the National Day of Prayer. She is the mother of three sons and seven beautiful grand-children. She is available for speaking engagements at local civic events, churches and conferences.