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Influencing Legislation

Do you have an opinion about an issue, that you would like to get off your chest?

Do you want someone to do something about it?

Do you want to do something about it?


What Should You Do?

  • Talk to everyone you know
  • Write a letter to the editor of your newspaper
  • Write a letter to the editor of another newspaper or magazine
  • Post comments on Internet media sites and blogs
  • Call your local radio talk show
  • Call your local TV station
  • Call or write your state legislative representative

This article focuses on the last item, although all the other ones are useful in influencing public opinion, and thereby affecting legislation.

Who Should You Tell?

Issues of family law and other domestic matters are constitutionally deemed to be the province of state governments. In this regard, the different states of the United States are almost like sovereign nations who can run things however they darn well please (within some limits), regardless of how other states are accustomed to run things. Thus, efforts to change the status quo are best directed to the people who can change these laws; namely, state legislators.

Do you know who your local state legislator is? Did you vote in the last statewide election? For example, In California, everyone has two legislative representatives who represent them in the state legislature:

  • the State Assembly member for your local Assembly District
  • the State Senator for your local Senatorial District.

Don’t know who these people are? Find out:

  • Open up your phone book to the pages that give governmental office listings (in my phone book, they are colored blue). Look under Assembly and/or Senate. My Yellow Pages directory also has a page listing all the state legislators in my area, as well as a map of the U.S. Congressional, State Senate and State Assembly districts.If you see some listings, but it isn’t clear which one corresponds to your legislative district (e.g. you don’t know which district you’re in), don’t feel bashful about calling any one of them to ask. They’ll be happy to fill you in.
  • Ask your local librarian. Most libraries have reference librarians whose job satisfaction comes from answering just these kinds of question. They have this information (and a whole lot more) at their fingertips.
  • Call your local newspaper, ask for the political desk. It’s their job to be on top of this, and they’re happy to share it with their loyal readers. (And, while you’ve got them on the phone, why not express your opinion on your burning issue to them also!)
  • Call information (XXX-555-1212) in your state capitol, ask for the Operator for the state legislature– the person or office who directs the phone calls from citizens to their respective respresentatives. This is often an 800 number. Call it and ask the person who answers to properly direct your call. Be prepared to give your city and zip code to help in locating your representative.

What Should You Say?

1. Tell Your Legislator

It always helps to focus attention if you refer to a specific bill or resolution that is before the legislature (or is likely to come up before the next election). If there is nothing to vote on, then there is little your legislative representative can do concretely about an issue, and your efforts to educate him will largely be wasted. (Unless you’re asking him to submit some draft legislation. That’s an advanced topic though.)

Don’t know what bill to refer to? Find out:

  • Call your representative’s office and ask what bills are being considered that are relevant to your issue. If there is anything in the works, it is in their interest to inform you of it and solicit your opinion on it. At the very least, a complete list of all pending legislation should be available (see “Bill Room” just below).
  • Once you find out a bill number, you can call the legislature’s main number (see above about yellow pages and calling the operator) and ask for the “Bill Room”. This is where they have all the printed copies of pending legislation that they will mail to you free for the asking. Various committee reports explaining the provisions of the bill and comparing them to current law may also be available. Ask about them.
  • Get a copy of the bill or relevant bills, read them, try to understand them. If you have trouble understanding them, note who the author(s) of the bill is(are), and call their offices and ask them to explain the obscure points. You could write letters with your questions, but the only way to avoid form letter replies and make sure your questions are understood and answered is to call on the phone.After a bill begins making the rounds of a few legislative committees, committee reports should become available. These are prepared by committee staff to explain to committee members what the salient points of law are, what the motivation behind the bill is, and what the main issues are. (Many committee members read these instead of the bill itself to find out what’s in the bill. You can too.)

2. Explain briefly why and how this is important to you

Explain briefly —

‘Briefly’ means one to two paragraphs of a letter, never more than one page if you can possibly help it. This is not the place for speechmaking, autobiography, or carefully crafted arguments. Legislators get many letters like yours each day and, unless you are a very unusual person, they simply don’t have time to read the details of your life story to understand why and how you came to believe as you do.

Also, if it takes more than a page or two to describe your reasons for or against a particular measure, this sends an unconscious signal that either your thinking is muddled and rambling, or else the issue is too complex to easily decide one way or the other, thus blunting your intended effect, if not obliterating it altogether.

Instead, figure out the top two or three main reasons this issue is important to you and concentrate on making sure those are clearly conveyed.

— Why and how this is important to you

Identify yourself to explain why this issue is close to your heart, and how it would affect you personally. For example, it is important to you because you or a loved one are directly affected by it, because a proposed bill or action creates / perpetrates / corrects an intolerable injustice, because it is consistent with or contradicts ideals of fairness, democracy, autonomy, etc. Here is where you make the issue personal for you and thus comprehensible in human terms to your legislator.

If you have special connection to the issue because of relavant life experience, then be sure to mention that, because it gives what you have to say you more authority.

Personal involvement and human interest is what makes your arguments stick in the politician’s mind.

3. The Hook

An elected legislator’s bottom line is votes. If she understands that the issue you raise may net out as a vote for or against her re-election, she will give it more attention than one that doesn’t have such a political cost attached to it. You’re not supposed to bribe politicians with money, but bribing them with votes is what the democracy game is all about.


  • Clarity of presentation is heard better.
  • Simplicity of concept is remembered better.
  • Personal Relevance makes it count.

Other Information & Advice on
Grassroots Legislative Activism

Kevin McCarty

Last modified: Mon Mar 09 12:47:53 1998

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Any political organization seeking to enact true open records legislation should be very clear with both their constituents and the legislators they work with about what the essential provisions of the proposed bill are. Any modification or deletion of the essential provisions of a bill should be immediate cause to have the bill killed.

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passes a written resolution such as the following that commits the board to a strategy of no compromise on key provisions
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WHEREAS we recognize that disclosure and contact vetoes, redactions, mandatory intermediaries and registry provisions are an affront to the dignity of adopted persons everywhere and a violation of their right to due process and equal treatment under the law,

WHEREAS there has been a demonstrable negative effect on the ability to pass unconditional open records in states that have passed veto legislation and/or any provisions that are less than unconditional access on demand by the adult adoptee,

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WE HEREBY DECLARE that under no circumstances will we accept the addition of veto, redaction, intermediary, or registry provisions, or any conditional provisions to our legislation that would be less than unconditional access for adult adoptees to the original record of their birth. All legislative sponsors and members of this organization will be informed of our policy on this matter to ensure that the bill is pulled promptly in the event of such revisions.

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