Suppose you have an issue you are passionate about — taxes, gun control or some other important policy. You want to do more than vent on social media, so you decide to write an email, place a phone call, or even draft a letter to your state legislator expressing your views. But that does not mean you will always receive a response.
Daniel Bergan is an associate professor and the director of master’s studies for Michigan State University’s College of Communication Arts and Sciences. Bergan studies the impact of citizen communication on policymakers to influence public policy. He shares his research and strategies so that constituents can optimize their influence when contacting legislators.
Select content and responses are excerpts from an article published in The Conversation.
Can you explain some of your typical research?
In my previous research, I analyzed — with their permission — the efforts of coalitions working to get citizens to contact their lawmakers in support of major legislation in New Hampshire and Michigan. I conducted a rigorous evaluation of the types of contact constituents made, the messages they conveyed and the behavior of lawmakers both before and after receiving those communications.
The results showed that communications from constituents can have a large impact on how legislators vote. For example, emails from constituents encouraging policymakers to support smoke-free workplace bills in New Hampshire increased state legislators’ support on critical votes by an estimated 20 percentage points — a substantial effect.
But a lot of people don’t bother to contact their elected officials, thinking it’s not worth communicating with them.
Are opposing views perceived differently?
While some research suggests that policymakers are responsive to communications from the public, there is also data that suggest that policymakers engage in what is called biased reasoning — writing off communications from constituents who do not share their policy views.
For instance, political scientists Daniel Butler and Adam Dynes asked state and local policymakers in two online surveys to evaluate a hypothetical communication from a constituent. Policymakers were randomly assigned to evaluate a letter that either supported or opposed a controversial policy and then rated the hypothetical letter writer on various characteristics.
The authors found that policymakers rated hypothetical constituents who disagreed with them as less knowledgeable about the topic. This discounting of constituents who disagree on policy could explain why policymakers tend to have biased perceptions of public opinion, believing the public’s attitudes to be more in line with their own positions than polling suggests.
How did you determine that citing evidence is important to policymakers?
In recent work with political communication scholars Hillary Shulman and Dustin Carnahan, I sought to develop strategies to limit policymakers’ discounting of constituents’ opinions.
We asked a national sample of elected local policymakers to evaluate a hypothetical email writer randomly assigned to express support or opposition to raising the minimum wage.
This study was similar to the Butler and Dynes study described above. But we added two randomly assigned conditions — what we called a “read” condition in which the writer expressed having “read a lot about” the topic, without any specific detail, or a “cite” condition in which the writer summarized and cited a study supporting their position.
We anticipated, based on research on biased reasoning, that providing clear evidence that the constituent is knowledgeable about the issue would prevent biased discounting of constituent opinion.
Policymakers in our study were asked to evaluate to what extent they thought that the constituent understood the issue, was representative of the community, and was sincere and held their position strongly. They were also asked whether they thought the communication was a form letter rather than a constituent-initiated communication and, therefore, presumably more likely to be written off.
What strategies add credibility to communications to policymakers?
The results confirmed previous findings that policymakers indeed discount the opinions of constituents with whom they disagree. When policymakers read an email expressing an opinion that differed from their own on raising the minimum wage, the email writer was rated lower across all five dimensions.
However, if the email writer provided evidence that they knew about the issue — citing research supporting their position — policymakers were more likely to perceive that the email writer understood the issue. The effects of citing evidence are stronger than simply stating that one has read about the issue.
My own work suggests that a constituent expressing an opinion to an elected official can influence the official’s vote on the issue. But just writing to an official is no guarantee that the constituent will persuade the official or have the issue resolved in the way they prefer.
We also found that there are no downsides to providing evidence supporting one’s position. You might expect that when provided with unambiguous evidence that a disagreeing constituent understands the issue, policymakers might direct their efforts to discounting other constituent characteristics, rating the constituent as less sincere or less representative of the community.
We did not find any evidence that this happened. When faced with evidence that their constituent knows the issue well, policymakers are less likely to discount their opinions.
What is the best approach to ensure your voice is heard?
The practical results are clear: When communicating with a policymaker, especially one with whom you disagree, you want to stop them from discounting your opinion. One way to do this is by citing quality evidence to support your position.
When contacting a policymaker about an issue, be aware that they may discount your opinion if they disagree. But note also that carefully crafted communications can convey your position without being written off — and could improve how accurately the policymaker understands public attitudes about public policies.