PRIMARIES 101: HOW EXACTLY DO YOU CALL YOUR SENATOR? AND WHAT EXACTLY DOES IT DO?
By Grace Hawkins
It hadn’t occurred to me that I would need to know the name of my senator until someone had already picked up the line.
“Congress,” the voice on the other end said.
“Um, I’d like to speak to my senator?”
“Who’s your senator?”
“Honestly, I don’t know…”
I’m not alone here. A 2015 poll of millennials showed that the majority (77%, to be exact) of millennials could not name their state senators.
I know I couldn’t. But when Kamala Harris, who has been fighting on the front lines against Brett Kavanaugh’s supreme court confirmation, tweeted a call to action asking supporters to call their senators, I figured I had some free time that day and picked up the phone.
The process was so easy I was certain something was wrong. Even without the name of my senator, I was transferred to an intern who told me I could tell her my message, at which point I said something like “I want to urge him to vote no on Kavanaugh,” and that was that.
The whole thing took under 5 minutes. Which got me thinking, if it’s so easy, does it really make a difference? And if it’s so easy, why hadn’t I done it before?
Seeking answers, I reached out to Julia Levin, a former lobbyist in Washington. Levin’s husband was a Senate aid, and her cousin, Carl Levin, served as the senator of Michigan from 1979 - 2015. Levin reassured me that, aside from voting in the midterm elections, calling your senator is one of the most effective ways to influence congressional decisions.
“I know from my husband's experience as well as my own, [elected officials] do consider personalized letters and phone calls to be important,” Levin said. “They will keep a tally online, or they may have a shared database within the office.”
Levin made sure to clarify that this importance is not granted to prewritten emails and letters or scripted phone calls.
“A lot of people are members of organizations that will send out an electronic alert and all you have to do is push a button and it sends a prewritten email,” Levin said. “Those do not carry any weight because legislators know that it's really easy to do and they're not personalized, but a phone call or a personalized letter matters a lot and they will tally them up. They keep track of how many calls they are getting and how many were pro or con on a particular issue or particular confirmation.”
Levin also explained that most calls to senators are short and sweet, just like mine was.
“They really just want to know what the issue is and are you pro or con,” Levin said.
Levin suggests having one short, simple reason prepared in case they ask you why you take your stance on the issue.
“Whatever is your top reason,” Levin said. “Abortion rights or presidential powers or whatever. They may ask a follow up question or two, but people don't need to be prepared with a long speech.”
Even if your senator is unlikely to swing in your favor, calling can still make a difference.
“It certainly will make more of a difference if your senator is on the fence, but I still think there's a value in letting your senators know even if you don’t think they are swing votes,” Levin said. “Legislators need to know that even if the majority of their state feels one way about an issue, not all of their constituents do.”
Levin says that aside from voting, writing personalized letters, and making genuine phone calls, the most effective way for your voice to be heard is attending town halls.
“Most members of Congress and senators will have somewhere on their website where you can sign up for press releases to hear when they're going to be at an event in your area,” Levin said. “Those can be opportunities to have more of a face to face conversation with them.”
Levin urges readers not to be intimidated by the idea of telling an elected official exactly what they think.
“I think it's really important to remember they work for us,” Levin said. “We pay their salary, we elect them. They are supposed to be public servants and I think people get intimidated by elected officials, and it should be the other way around.”
To find the name of your senators, click here.
To call your senators, dial 202-224-3121.
To register to vote in the 2018 midterm elections, click here.
To read our Feminism Editor’s official statement on Brett Kavanaugh, click here.