After being on GAG for a little over 2 years I noticed that the society and policy section is pretty active. I see various questions from users sometimes complaining about the current laws and many times rightly so. Some federal, state, and local laws are unjust, or hamper the ability of citizens to lead their lives effectively by affecting individuals, businesses, or public institutions. There are ways beyond volunteering for campaigns and voting at the polls that citizens have power. One way is with citizen lobbying, which can happen at the individual level in all 50 states at the federal, state, and local levels of government. Another way which is only possible currently in 26 states is citizen-initiated ballot measures at the state level. The later I will write about in Part 2. of the mytake.
(I will include links throughout the document as well as my first-hand knowledge and experience with the process.)
How I became interested in Citizen Lobbying.
When I was in nursing school we had to take a public policy course which included learning about legislative policy at all levels of government. We then had to find issues that we were concerned about and take them to our local, state, or federal legislators to advocate for change. I was surprised at the progress many of us made. Since I mostly know about the process at the the state level and the process at the federal level is similar these two areas will be the focus of the mytake. However, citizen lobbying can happen at at level of government.
A few words about professional lobbying.
I would be remiss not to mention professional lobbying in this take. Professional lobbying is what most people think of when they think of lobbying and lobbyists. This is when businesses, special interest groups, advocacy groups, etc. hire a professional lobbyist or a lobbying firm to meet with legislators and work to advance agendas based on the business or group. This is a specific process with all kinds of rules and the lobbyists themselves have training and get paid for their services. This is not what I am writing about but it's important to keep in mind that even this type of lobbying can be done with citizen's groups. Labor Unions are a good example of this and the federal government as well as state governments will sometimes be open to scheduling a "day on the hill" especially for labor unions to meet with legislators.
Why should U.S. citizens give any thought to lobbying at the individual level?
I know what many readers will be thinking as I've heard it all before. Why should I waste my time? Why will my legislators care what one person thinks? It won't do any good anyway so why bother? Well, for one thing, I have seen it influence changes as I've mentioned above. Also, while it's true many politicians will talk a good game but not do anything to advance certain causes there are also plenty that go into public service to be public servants. If they are smart they will realize that one citizen possibly represents thousands of their constituents with similar viewpoints and if they care they will want their constituents to be satisfied. If they aren't smart and don't care then hopefully you won't vote to re-elect them but that's a different topic. Also when people ask why, I ask why not. Throughout history, many changes happened with laws at every level of government and even changes to state constitutions and our U.S. Constitution. These changes didn't happen by everyone accepting the status quo. They happened because people challenged the state quo in various ways and influenced changes, significant changes sometimes. The alternative I suppose is to just complain on places like GAG about how lawmakers are not doing what we want them to do, although we know for sure that doesn't create any change if these lawmakers don't hear it or read it anywhere.
Some examples of how citizen lobbying can be effective.
One of my first assignments was when I met with a state legislator in my district to talk about a law on the books that was hampering certain health services in our district. My legislator was able to find a way that we could bypass that law to get the services we needed.
Some others in the class met with certain legislators about the bills on the state's agenda and encouraged a yes or no vote. They found out in follow-up that they had influenced several legislators to change their vote based on the information they had been presented them with.
Also, I worked with a group of people to plant a seed about a future bill we wanted to see get written and passed. It took several years but our state legislature did eventually write it, get it passed, and the governor signed it into law. This may sound like an impossible feat but there are quite a few state legislature websites that cite citizen concerns as one of the reasons certain bills get written or laws get amended.
The website for the Oregon state legislature for instance has a page titled "How an idea becomes a law" and they mention how certain ideas presented by concerned citizens or groups can eventually get written into bills. https://www.oregonlegislature.gov/citizen_engagement/Pages/How-an-Idea-Becomes-Law.aspx
The website for the California legislature also mentions how an idea from anybody individual or group can become a bill https://www.senate.ca.gov/legislativeprocess#:~:text=These%20ideas%20can%20come%20from,drafted%20into%20the%20actual%20bill.
It's not just blue states either several states, red, blue, and swing states have state legislature webpages stating that very same concept.
South Dakota https://mylrc.sdlegislature.gov/api/Documents/72127.pdf
I think you all get the idea with the above examples about how to get laws written or changed from just an idea from a concerned citizen or group.
The other way that I mentioned was to influence a yes or no vote on a bill. Again you may be thinking why should a legislator listen to me? It may seem unlikely that you will influence a yes or no vote especially when you think about members of Congress. However, a survey conducted of congressional staffers in 2010 by the Congressional Management Foundation indicated that members of Congress were more likely to vote based on constituents who visited, wrote, or called than by paid lobbyists. https://www.safeaccessnow.org/citizen_lobbying
How does one go about citizen lobbying?
When it comes to state and federal legislators the biggest difference is where they have their offices. For U.S. Congress they have offices in D.C. and their districts but state legislators may only have offices at the state capitol depending on their state so the process for where you can meet with them will be slightly different but all the rest is very similar.
First: find out who your legislators are, the easiest way to do this is to go to https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials and put in your address, this will give you all the legislators that represent you at federal, state, and local levels of government. Also visiting websites for Congress, state legislatures, etc. will have similar searches.
Second: figure out ways you can contact or meet with your legislator, members of Congress can be difficult to meet with individually but they will usually have legislative assistants that can meet with you if they are not available. There also might be town halls and other events where they will be in their district. Most of them have websites listed at the main government websites. If you go to those websites there will be numbers to their office and sometimes an email address for a legislative assistant. The legislative assistant can help you schedule an in-person/phone/virtual meeting.
Third: if you meet with them in person, virtually, or by phone have a short statement. Make sure you have done your research, have a fact sheet with three or four important facts to stress the importance of your concern about an existing bill, to encourage a change or a new law to be written. If others states have a law that you would like to see in your state, include those include references to the states and those laws. Remember to keep statements short, concise, and respectful. You can also take others with you, but it's best to keep the groups small, three or four people, these meetings are usually short 15 minutes.
Fourth: give them a copy of the fact sheet, and plan to follow up with them by phone or email through their legislative assistant to check on the progress of your request. Also be sure to send a follow-up email thanking them for their time.
Fifth: network with other concerned citizens about the issue and encourage them to contact or meet with their legislators about it as well.
If you are networking with a group and you all are across a geographic area it can be helpful for all of the members of the network to visit the federal or state government pages for their legislators and see the different committee assignments that each legislator is in, also visiting their campaign websites will help the group figure out when legislators will be more amiable to their requests when figuring out who to contact or meet with.
There are so many more resources than what I have listed that have even more information on citizen lobbying but I cannot list every one of them because of length. It also may seem like a long shot to make any real progress but for me and others it has been a worthwhile way to spend extra time. Knowing that even small changes could improve the lives of others or fix injustices is the only inspiration some of us need to participate in this type of civic engagement. I hope you enjoyed part one of my first mytake on the power that U.S. citizens have beyond volunteer campaigning and voting. If not that's okay too, it was worth it for me to write it for people who want to learn more about the process. Part two will focus on citizen-led ballot measures. Stay tuned!