Advocacy 101: Tips for Advocating at the State House and to Your Elected Officials
The best way to protect your civil liberties is to advocate for them directly. Your legislators need to hear about what matters to you, and it is always easier for them to defend your rights if they can understand how the bills they consider affect their constituents. Being an advocate can seem a daunting task, but it doesn't have to be. Here are some tips and tricks the ACLU has learned along the way that may help you feel more confident in your actions. Thank you for standing up civil liberties.
Be sure to look for our Advocate Training Days at the beginning of every year.
In this section:
- How to Talk So Your Legislator Will Hear You
- The State House
- 10 Tips for Testifying Before a Legislative Committee
As constituents, you can and should talk with your legislator any time of year; you don't need to wait until they're at the State House to get their attention. Get to know your legislators and let them get to know you; the best way is to interact with them often. In the meantime, here are some tips to help you maximize your impact.
1) Be prepared, be brief, be courteous.
- Keep in mind that most of your legislators do not have staff. This can mean that it's hard to reach them, especially if there is an issue of great controversy, but it also means that you have a chance to persuade them directly.
- A little background research can go a long way - you never know when you can give your legislator new information on an issue that interests you. Prepare to emphasize one or two points you really want your legislator to understand.
- However, legislators are most interested in how the issue affects their constituents. Whenever possible, link your arguments back to yourself, your neighbors, or your community.
- Keep letters to 1-2 paragraphs and phone messages to a few sentences.
- If possible, include praise for a position the legislator has taken in the past. Let your legislator know if you disagree with them, but explain why rather than just criticize their position.
2) Call them.
- Talk to your legislators. (You can find how to reach them below.) When you reach someone, state the issue, what you want them to do, and why it matters to you.
- If you get their voicemail, ask them to give you a call back. Then follow up later with another form of communication.
3) Write them a letter.
- Personal letters can be very effective. A handwritten letter will especially stand out. If you're part of a letter-writing campaign, consider using your own words rather than copying a script verbatim.
- Legislators receive a lot of e-mail, so if you send an e-mail you should follow up later with a phone call or other form of communication. Some legislators ask that you put your address or zip code in the body of your e-mail so they know you're a constituent and they can pay special attention.
4) Meet them face-to-face.
- Go to events like town halls, forums, and other meetings where they are speaking. Come prepared with a question. Be sure to introduce yourself after.
- Go to the State House. If your legislator is hard to pin down, you know they'll be in attendance for State House business. Contact them in advance to let them know you are coming. Testify before legislative committees on bills that interest you.
- Invite them to your home. Your legislators are your neighbors. Call and invite them to meet with you and other like-minded members of your community.
5) Thank them.
- If your legislator has done something you agree with, let them know – especially if they were in the minority. This helps them to know their constituents are behind them the next time they have to make a similar vote.
6) Contact info and more information:
- All legislators can be reached by mail at the State House: 82 Smith Street, Providence, RI 02903.
- Home contact information for most legislators is available on the General Assembly's website, www.rilegislature.gov. Find your legislator under the House or Senate tab, and then click on the "Biography" tab to find their address and/or phone number.
- If you're not sure who your legislator is, visit sos.ri.gov/vic/.
Going to the State House can seem overwhelming, but don't let that be a reason for you to stay home. There is no faster way to advocate for issues that matter to you than going up to Smith Hill and making yourself known. Here are some tips to help you feel more comfortable. For more, look for our Advocacy Training Days at the beginning of each year.
The RI General Assembly meets every year during a regular session. The exact dates change annually, but the session starts the first Tuesday in January and usually runs until the end of June.
Find and Track Legislation
- Everything you need to keep up with the legislature is online. The General Assembly posts original and amended versions of bills, committee hearing notices, schedules of votes for the floor, and the results of committee and floor votes.
- For information, including bill numbers, on the bills that the ACLU is monitoring, visit www.riaclu.org/legislation or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.
- To find when legislation will be heard or voted on in committee or voted on by the full House or Senate, and other up-to-date legislative information, visit: www.rilegislature.gov/pages/legislation.aspx.
- To find up-to-the-minute status updates on bills, or look for bills by title, category, sponsor or bill number, go here: www.status.rilin.state.ri.us/.
- Many committee hearings and the House and Senate floor sessions are televised live or recorded and posted online. Check your local TV listings, or visit http://www.rilin.state.ri.us/CapTV/Pages/default.aspx.
If you would like email updates on the status of a bill, visit: www.rilegislature.gov/billtracker/pages/Register.aspx
- Register as a user, and then enter the bill number into the “tracker,” and wait for email alerts on bill hearings and votes. In your account settings you can choose to be updated hourly, daily, or weekly on any changes to the status of a bill. In the final days of the legislative session, things can move very quickly, however, and you should not rely solely on hourly updates to let you know what is going on.
Daily Legislative Schedule
- Daily sessions are generally Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Business is usually scheduled to begin at 4pm, but frequently begins much later. A loud bell will ring to call the legislators for a quorum; when the bell stops ringing, the business for that chamber has begun. You are permitted to enter the chamber and talk to legislators before or during the quorum call, but must leave when the bell stops ringing.
- Daily committee hearings begin at "the Rise," or the conclusion of floor business, usually after 4pm. Committee hearings that start at specific times will be otherwise noted on the committee calendars.
- Daily committee hearings end after agenda is completed.
Attend a Hearing
- Hearings are located at the State House (82 Smith Street, Providence, RI 02903). Metered parking is available on Smith, Francis, and Gaspee Streets. Enter through the metal detectors on the Smith Street side of the building.
- Hearings are held on all floors of the State House. Room 35, Finance, is located in the basement. Rooms beginning with 1 are on the first floor, 2 on the second floor, and 3 on the third floor.
- The General Assembly is required to post hearing notices 48 hours before the hearing occurs. NOTE: This rule is regularly suspended in the last week of the legislative session, at which point hearings may be posted only a few minutes before they happen or not at all. See more below about how to stay on top of the end of the session.
- The exact time/room of the hearing will be listed on the Committee Calendar: www.status.rilin.state.ri.us/legislative_committee_calendar.aspx.
- Be prepared to wait. You are permitted to sit and wait in any hearing room unless they are filled to capacity. In those instances, you may be asked to go to an overflow room. Televisions will be made available and the hearings streamed live.
- Bring snacks, water, and something to pass the time.
- In June, the State House can be very hot, but a few committee rooms can be cold.
- If a revised version of the bill is approved (called a Sub A, Sub A/2, or Sub B), you may ask the committee clerk for a copy once the meeting is concluded.
Monitor Floor Debates
- The House and Senate chambers are located on the second floors, but the galleries where you can view the proceedings are on the third floor.
- Voting boards will indicate the number of the bill being discussed and will display the vote counts.
- Make note of any approved amendments, as well as the final vote on the bill.
The End of the Session
- Once the budget is approved by the House in the middle or end of June, things move very quickly. The House and Senate generally "suspend the rules," which largely means that they stop adhering to requirements that they post hearing and vote notices 48 hours in advance. If there is a bill you are interested in, it is best to be at the State House during the final legislative days in order to keep on top of things.
- The House and Senate generally still post calendars online, and hearings and floor sessions are still televised and streamed via CapitolTV.
- Do not hesitate to contact your legislator on issues that are important to you, but be prepared they may not have time to respond.
Glossary of Legislative Terms
Map of the State House
1) Provide written testimony.
- Legislators hear a lot of testimony, and not every legislator will be in the room for the entire hearing. Written testimony will ensure you get to say everything you want, and that legislators will remember your statement later. Provide at least 23 copies for House committees and 12 for Senate, and make sure the bill number is at the top.
2) Sign up before the hearing.
- Sign-up sheets will be available in the room before the hearing. If you can’t find the sign-up sheets, or you get to the hearing late, see the committee clerk.
3) Practice your elevator pitch.
- The length of your testimony is at the discretion of the committee chair. Some will let you speak without limit; others, especially if the hearing is well attended, will limit your time. Practice your testimony with a two-minute limit, so that you can get your important points across. Even if you have unlimited time, short, strong points will stay with legislators more than long, detailed testimony.
4) Make sure your microphone is on, thank the chair, and introduce yourself.
- Some hearing rooms have microphones with red buttons; make sure the button is up so your voice can be recorded. Introduce yourself to the committee, so they know who you are and why you’re there.
5) Speak plainly.
- You may have expertise, but most others in the room won’t. Speak in easy-to-understand terms, and try to avoid jargon.
6) Don’t repeat what others have said.
- Once a point has been made, there’s often little benefit in making it again. Keep your points fresh and people will pay more attention.
7) Keep it local.
- Legislators are most interested in how the issue affects their constituents. Whenever possible, link your testimony back to yourself, your neighbors, or your community.
8) Remain calm and professional.
- Your passion should fuel your testimony, but try to avoid being or making others defensive. Hearings can get heated, but they aren’t debates. Avoid arguing with legislators, and never engage in personal attacks against anyone.
9) If you don’t know the answer, say so.
- Nobody has all the answers at their fingertips. If you are asked a question and don’t have the answer, be honest. Use that as an opportunity to follow up with your legislators later with the answer to their question, and a reminder of your opinion. Never claim a fact you aren’t certain of.
10) Take a deep breath and be confident.
- Everybody was a beginner once, and you’ll do fine.