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How to Write a Letter to your Legislator
E-mails and letters are effective ways to communicate with elected and other government officials. Here are some tips on proper format and effective content for a letter urging an action or expressing an opinion to a member of Congress or a member of the state legislature.
For more advice on writing to your legislator, see "Your Right to Write,” by Morris K. Udall (The University of Arizona Library).
The American Library Association gives the following advice on writing to your legislator:
Where possible, use your official letterhead. If this is not appropriate, and you write as an individual, use plain white bond paper, and give your official title following your signature as a means of identification and to indicate your competency to speak on the subject.
"Sincerely yours" is in good taste as a complimentary close. Remember to sign your given name and surname. If you use a title in your signature, be sure to enclose it in parentheses.
- Your legislators like to hear opinions from home and want to be kept informed of conditions in the district. Base your letter on your own experiences and observations.
- If writing about a specific bill, describe it by number or its popular name. Your legislators have thousands of bills before them in the course of a year, and cannot always take time to figure out which one you are referring to.
- They appreciate intelligent, well-thought-out letters that present a definite position.
- Even more important and valuable to them is a concrete statement of the reasons for your position--particularly if you are writing about a field in which you have specialized knowledge. Representatives have to vote on many matters with which they have had little or no first-hand experience. Some of the most valuable information they receive comes from facts presented in letters from people who have knowledge in the field.
- Short letters are almost always best. Members of Congress receive many letters each day, and a long one may not get as prompt a reading as a brief statement.
- Letters should be timed to arrive while the issue is alive. Members of the committee considering the bill will appreciate having your views while the bill is ripe for study and action.
- Remember to follow through with a thank-you letter.
- Letters that demand votes for or against a certain bill without giving any reasoning are not very influential.
- Threats of defeat at the next election are not effective.
- Boasts of how influential the writer is are not helpful.
- Do not ask for a vote commitment on a particular bill before the committee in charge of the subject has had a chance to hear the evidence and make its report.
- Form letters or letters that include excerpts from other letters on the same subject are not as influential as a simple letter drawing on your own experience.
- Congressional courtesy requires legislators to refer letters from non-constituents to the proper offices, so you should generally confine your letter-writing to members of your state's delegation or members of the committee specifically considering a bill.
- Do not engage in letter writing overkill. Quality, not quantity, is what counts.
Tips on Communicating with Government Officials via Mail or EMail
Here are some tips from the University of California Berkeley Library on contacting and communicating with your elected official through letters or e-mail:
- Be Original: Consider writing your own original correspondence. While many organizations can provide you a pre-written letter or postcard that you simply sign, many legislators consider a thoughtful, original letter from a constituent worth 1000 of the pre-written letters. Feel free to use a pre-written letter as a base to rework with your own words.
- Stay Brief: Government officials are usually very busy. The maximum length of a letter/e-mail should be one page. Keep in mind that the letter will probably be read by a legislative aid, so a brief letter is best.
- State Who You Are and What You Are Writing About: Identify yourself as a constituent and why you are writing in the first place first paragraph. This will keep your letter brief. However, refrain from using lines such as "As a citizen and a taxpayer..." and never make a threat. Also, if you know the bill name or number state it in the first paragraph.
- Personalize Your Letter/E-mail: If the legislation you are writing about will affect you personally, tell the legislator about it. Write a brief personal story about what the legislation will/will not do for you and/or your community.
- Personalize Your Relationship: The more you can personalize your relationship with the legislator, the stronger your letter/e-mail will be. If you worked on his/her campaign or donated money to the legislator or their party, say so. If you ever met the legislator, briefly mention this in your letter.
- Three Points: In keeping your correspondence short, consider making no more than three main points. Flush out your three strongest points and stick with them.
- Be Respectful: Taking a firm position on an issue is fine, but opening correspondence with "Dear Idiot" will probably get your letter sent straight to the garbage. Do not use profanity. Even if your legislator is not the person you voted for, remember to be respectful.
- Include Your Address in Your Signature, Even in E-mail: Legislators are busy people, and you should never demand a response. However, some legislators will take the time to write back, but they cannot if you do not include your address. Including your address also affirms the fact that you are a constituent.
- Proper Address: Below are the ways to address your letters:
Dear Mr. President:
Dear Mr. Vice President:
To The Honorable Senator [Name]:
To The Honorable Representative [Name]:
- Follow up: After you have contacted your elected official, follow up on what they did. If he/she voted the way you wanted, consider contacting them to thank him/her. If your legislator did not vote the way you wanted, consider contacting them and respectfully express your disappointment. In any follow-up letter/email, mention the fact that you wrote him/her before the vote was taken.