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The urge to spout off is real

Years ago, before I ever got involved in activism, I could rattle off the names of senators I’d have loved to give a piece of my mind. 

Can I tell Senator What’s-His-Name what I really think?

I’m sure you’ve been there too. Reading the news, shaking your head, you feel an urge to tell someone what a craptastic job they’re doing. Maybe you’ve reached out, maybe you haven’t, but the question remains:

Can you actually influence other people’s elected officials?

Technically? Not really.

The generally-accepted answer is a cautious “no”. The structure of our representative government means that officials are accountable almost exclusively to their constituents—the people who live in their district or state and who voted them into office. 

You wouldn’t take orders from someone else’s boss. Constituents in their district have significant weight because they have the power to re-elect or vote them out. You being outside their district means you lack this fundamental connection and, bluntly said, relevance.

It can even be problematic because they (or their staff) might consider your message, as an outsider, to be meddling in their affairs. This could end up hurting to local organizing efforts that were making inroads on an important issue. In short, the immediate satisfaction of spouting off can backfire.

But there IS wiggle room

You’ll note above that I said “officials are almost exclusively accountable to their constituents”. There are actually several instances where reaching out to other states’ officials makes perfect sense. 

Here are four circumstances when you can appropriately contact those out-of-state senators and representatives with confidence:

  • The issue affects ALL Americans: When a national crisis affects your area, senators from other states might play a crucial role in solving it. Concerned about the erosion of reproductive rights in your own state? Reach out to a senator in pro-rights state, share how the issue impacts your community, and enlist their help for all Americans by supporting specific legislation. (Note: do this after you contact your own.)
  • The issue is addressed by a committee: Another exception comes when the chair of any Congressional committee works for ALL Americans in their role. For example, a House representative outside your district serves as chair for a committee that’s pivotal to an issue you care about. You can totally contact her in this capacity. If you’re passionate about education reform, for example, contact the House Education and Labor Committee chairperson—even if they’re from another state—to share your views.
  • The issue involves multiple states: If you live near the border of another state where there’s a shared issue like a river or air quality, it’s completely appropriate to contact governors of both your own and the neighboring state. Your concern ties directly to their responsibilities.
  • The issue involves appointments affecting ALL Americans: When it comes to federal appointments requiring Senate confirmation—like judges or cabinet members—reach out to senators outside your state. Appointments like these have national implications, so it’s important to express your support or opposition to a candidate.

We feature actions like the above in the Americans of Conscience Checklist all the time!

Forgive a mini lecture on U.S. history

It’s worth mentioning that participation is a central aspect of our democracy. Our nation was formed by the voices of those agreeing to be governed. (Those early years weren’t perfect; women couldn’t vote, enslaved people were counted as three-fifths of a person, and self-governing Indigenous communities had no voice at all.) Today, our nation continues to be improved through votes and voices of people just like you and me.

Citizens’ voices matter. (Yes, yours.)

While you will always have the most influence with your own elected officials, you can be strategic in how you speak up. Just like I learned, giving the right leader a piece of your mind can move our democracy in a healthier direction. 

Still feel annoyed at someone you can’t justify calling? Yell at the screen for a moment, donate to their opposing candidate, and go do something else.

Tell me.

Can you think of a time you’ve wanted to call someone else’s member of Congress? How how would you use that urge today? Comment below to share your experience and thoughts!

Warmly,
Jen Hofmann
AoCC Executive and Creative Director

For more tips on engaging with your own elected officials, check out our previous article, Why Calling Your Congressperson Still Matters: An Activist’s Guide to Staying Engaged. These posts are part of our new Activist FAQ series, your go-to guide for staying engaged and making a difference in these challenging times.

9 Comments

  1. I contacted “Coach” Tuberville’s office when he was holding back military promotions. I also contacted Mitch McConnell’s office regarding the impeachment of 45 and the decision about not having witnesses before the decision was final.

  2. hi–the obstacle in writing other states’ congress folk is you must put in an address that aligns with their district and state. soooooo, if you do not have a friend whose address you can use , you can go to Zillow and find an address. not quite kosher, but when it is a national issue and that person has power over it, it is critical we can connect.

  3. When I have tried to email senators or congress people from other states through their websites, I was blocked because I am not a constituent. However, I am constantly asked to donate to their campaigns. What is up with that? And how CAN I reach them?

  4. I have tried on occasion to email other MoCs (when the issue affected me or most Americans) but I found that it’s often not possible to email them if your zip code is not part of their state/district. Is there another way around this? Is a phone call, letter, or postcard a better approach?

  5. I have emailed Mitch McConnell numerous times. And other senators and congress people that are not “my” representatives. I have used the address of that particular legislator to get past the email requirement for the sender’s address. I feel that I should be able to contact any government legislator when that person makes laws that effect me.

  6. Wouldn’t another instance of contacting an elected official from another state might be when they are the leader of the Senate or House? I have certainly felt justified in doing that.

    • Yes, you’re absolutely right! They’re leaders who work for us all (just like committee chairs). Thanks for the awesome comment!

  7. I used to call Mitch McConnell all the time. because he was the majority leader, or minority leader. After a while no one answered the phone and the voice mail was full. I think that is still true today. So my brother-in-law lives just down the street from him in Louisville, and I would use that address to make my comments online. I don’t know if it did any good, but I felt better getting it off my chest. It is my belief that if a MOC is speaking on a national scale (Ted Cruz, Rep. Stepfanik, Tom Cotton) then I have the right to express my views to them. Google earth is great for finding an address near one of their offices to use.

  8. My primary residence is in FL, for now ( not sure how much longer I can take the politicians there) but I live at least 4 months out of the year in NC and own property there. I have worked the Democratic Party phone lines there and taken some post card writing actions in both states. There are times when I would like to call some of my he legislators in NC but did not know if owning property there was sufficient reason to get them to listen!

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