Just because you can’t vote yet doesn’t mean you can’t voice your view on things that matter to you. Your representatives in congress represent everyone in their district, including children. By reaching out to your congressman or woman, you can help influence their vote on potential laws and regulations that affect you, your family, your friends or your community.
You see, congressmen and women really do care what their constituents (the people they represent) think. They even have staffers whose sole job is to tally up the opinions of everyone who contacts the congressional office. Quite frequently, these congress members will change their vote on something if as few as seven people call in their support or dissent. That means a few minutes of your time can make a huge difference.
Who do I contact?
Everyone, including kids, is represented by three members of the U.S. Congress. Remember that the U.S. Congress is made up of two branches: the House and the Senate.
One of your representatives is in the House of Representatives. There are a total of 435 districts in the United States, and each elects their own House representative. Your congressman in the House is generally addressed by the title “Representative [Last Name],” but may also be called “Congressman [Last Name].”
Your other two representatives are in the Senate, and both represent your entire state. They are addressed by the title “Senator [Last Name.”] There are two senators per state making 100 total in the U.S. Senate.
The House and Senate vote separately, and both must approve a bill in order for the President to have an opportunity to sign it into law or veto it. That means if you care about an issue, you will want to contact all three of your representatives.
To find your congressman and senators, you can input your home address here.
To learn more about how Congress works, you can check out this site called Congress for Kids.
What happens when you contact congress?
This depends on how you decide to contact your congress members, but the end result is usually the same. A staffer will produce a “call report” that includes all forms of contact. Here is an example of a Call Report attained by the Borgen Project. This report will be shown to the congressman or woman to help them learn how their constituents feel about a particular issue. If a majority lean strongly one way or another, they often take this into account when they vote.
Smaller issues usually do not have as many voters reaching out. For example, you may see a lot of calls against hot button issues of the month, but you can also have an influence on smaller bills that are important to you but not covered as much in the news. By having you and a few family members and friends contact congress, you can help put issues on their radar that they might otherwise be unaware of.
How to Contact Congress
There are six main ways to contact your representatives on congress. We have ranked them below from worst to best.
- Writing a letter
The mythic idea of writing a letter to congress has been the go-to response to anybody who complains about public issues. You’ve probably heard, “Well, why don’t you write your representatives?” As it turns out, writing a letter is usually not the best way to get your voice heard.
After 9/11, there were several anthrax scares in Washington, D.C. A lethal white powder was placed in letters sent to multiple congress members and many staffers were sickened. Ever since, letters to congress undergo strict security protocol. This process can take several weeks, which means timely issues may be voted on before anybody even opens your letter.
Another detriment to writing a letter to congress is that these letters are opened and read by staffers, who tally the general yes or no of the voter’s opinion; however, all of your well-thought-out points are never passed on or seen by your actual representatives. So letters end up taking a lot of time without a lot of pay-off.
- Social Media
For a while, social media was considered the best way to contact your congress members. No doubt, sending a Tweet or posting on their Facebook wall is easy and fast. Nowadays, though, everyone is turning to social media to rant and rave to their congress members. The staffers who manage the pages are flooded with responses and may have a hard time keeping up. It’s easy to have your post or Tweet missed in all the hubbub. Plus, outlets like Twitter make you limit complicated thoughts into 140 characters—not the best way to really state your case convincingly.
E-mail is another common way to contact congress. If you choose to send an e-mail, try to keep it short and sweet at a maximum of 4-5 paragraphs. Just know that e-mails suffer the same problem as social media—because they are easier to send, many others are sending them, too. That means yours may get lost in the shuffle.
Calling your congress members is one of the fastest and most effective ways to get your voice heard. Not as many people take the time to call as they do to write an e-mail, so you’re more likely to be paid attention. The downside to a phone call is that you may not have time to explain all of your concerns. Staffers are used to spending just a minute or so collecting your information (name and home address) before tallying you as a “support” or “opposed” vote. They don’t really have the time to listen to all of your reasons.
- In Person
Visiting your congressman or woman in person can have a big impact, especially as a kid. Congress members love meeting and listening to kids because not many come visit them! They are far more likely to remember you and your opinion if you see them face-to-face. The trick is finding them when they’re in town. Senators are not often local to you, but your member in the House of Representatives will usually be in your local area quite often. You can call and ask when they are expected to be in their local office or when they may be hosting a town hall event, during which all constituents are welcomed to a meeting hall to voice their concerns.
Believe it or not, the number one best way to contact congress is by fax. A fax machine uses a phone line to transmit documents and images so the recipient instantly receives a print-out of the document you are sending. As a kid, you may think of fax machines as quite archaic (and you’re kind of right), but let us explain.
With a fax, you get all the pros from the above options and eliminate several of the cons. For example, you will have the space to explain all of your thoughts and reasons in writing, but unlike a letter, it will be received instantly with no risk of anthrax, which makes your representatives more likely to see your letter with their own eyes. And unlike an e-mail, a faxed letter is not as common and will definitely get notice and attention from staffers who may pass it straight along to the congress member you are contacting.
As a kid, your letters don’t have to be complicated. Keep it short and sweet.
“Dear Congressman Smith,
My name is Kelly Jones, and I am a student at West Park Elementary School. I am 9 years old and recently did a science fair project on the environment. I learned that gas emissions from our agricultural industry are just as harmful as our car emissions. I also learned that H.R. Bill 79 is seeking to solve this problem by limiting emissions from factory farms. I hope you vote yes on this bill to help save our environment so kids like me can grow up and have a healthier Earth. Thank you.
If you are older, you can write more paragraphs with more arguments and citation of facts, figures, and statistics.
Sample phone call script:
“Hello, my name is _____. I’m a supporter of ____ and I would like Senator/Congressman ___ _to vote Yes/No on H.B./S.B. 54.”
At this point, the staffer will usually ask for your address and ask if there is anything else you want your congressman or woman to know.
Always leave your address. This helps the congress member know that they do, indeed, represent you. They’ll also send you a form letter in response. These form letters are drafted and sent to everybody who contacted them about an issue and will usually thank you for contacting their office and let you know how they chose to vote.
Know what bill you are contacting them about. While it is acceptable to call in on a general issue (such as “I want to protect the environment”), it’s even more helpful to have a bill number associated with a potential law. If you don’t know of one, you can search for current congressional bills by subject matter using Govtrack.us.
Let them know you’re a kid. Almost always, this makes your message more meaningful to them, since not many kids contact congress compared to adults. They may even go out of their way to make your experience special.
Tell them why you care! If you are contacting them about school funding, let them know what you see “on the ground” as a kid in school. If your parent is a police officer, you can plead for more funding for bulletproof vests. If you love animals and want to protect them, explain why. Let them know how these issues affect you as a kid.
Use facts and research if possible. If you are unsure where to start, ask a parent, teacher or librarian. They’ll be able to help you find the facts and statistics you need to back up your opinion.
Don’t use form letters. These are pre-written letters provided by organizations that fight for certain issues in congress. Form letters are easy for people to sign and send, but once a staffer catches on to a form letter, they can be unintentionally dismissed or ignored. It’s always better to put your own thoughts out there.
Be polite. Congress members deal with angry constituents a lot. A little bit of kindness goes a long way, especially when coming from a kid who just wants to get involved in the civic process.
Phone calls must be concise. If you have a lot to say or want to relate personal experience, a written form of communication is your best bet.
Only contact your own congress member. The only exception is if you want to contact a leader like the Senate Majority or the head of a special committee when they are involved in a particular issue of interest to you.
Skip the hand-written letters. Yes, they are charming, but they can be hard to read and easy to skip over. Still, as a kid, feel free to send your artwork, especially if it is relevant to the topic about which you are contacting them.
Lastly, don’t be intimidated! Your congress members are there to serve you, even if you cannot vote yet. Since they do not hear from kids as often as adults, your fax, letter or phone call is sure to brighten your representatives’ day. If you’re too scared to make a phone call, try practicing our script above, or keep the phone on speaker mode with a parent nearby to help you. Alternatively, have your parent help you fax or mail a letter if you prefer to take your time and write down your thoughts.
Whichever way you contact your representatives, you cannot truly go wrong. It’s fast and easy for kids to contact congress, and it allows you to participate in the American democratic process.