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Jun 2014

Five tips for effective communication with your elected official

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President Barack Obama receives thousands of messages each day from citizens but they trickle into your local council member’s inbox and phone at a rate of a handful a week.  And while Obama has almost no pull in whether your road will get paved, reaching out to your elected official will almost certainly grab their attention.  Many members of local councils and boards now rely on email to receive the bulk of their messages from constituents.

1. Email still works

“Email is definitely the best,” said Todd Carnes, a member of the Lexington Town Council. “With an email, it is not urgent so you can take time to get the right answer and respond accordingly.”

Tameika Isaac Devine, an at-large member of Columbia City Council, also prefers to receive email, because it allows her to document constituents’ requests and her responses. “It’s easier for me. It’s hard to contact me by phone. I can shoot them an email back at 10 o’clock at night and get back to them.”

person on the phone2. Get on the phone

When residents of Red Bank and South Congaree want to get heard at Lexington County Council, their best bet is to make a phone call to Bobby C. Keisler, their council member since 2003.

“I don’t like to email anybody. I like to talk to people,” Keisler said. “I’m one of the only politicians who will go to your home, sit in your house and listen to your story.”

After they finish their conversation, Keisler calls the head of the pertinent county department. He explains the issue and asks the department head to first call the citizen, and after that to call him back. Later, Keisler will call back the citizen to see if the issue was resolved. Most issues are resolved, but “some people, no matter what you do, you won’t make them happy.” 

3. Understand the process

Devine recently led a workshop session on how non-profit leaders can better communicate with elected officials. Her suggestions:

  1. Get to know your elected officials, and how they vote
  2. Get to know the process. For example, a matter is approved by Richland County Council after three readings. But if you want to voice your opinion about a matter before Columbia City Council, you should know that it takes only two readings for approval.

4. Contact just the officials that represent youVoterheads Logo

Before your connect with an elected official, make sure they’re the right one.  Most cities and counties have information about their council that let’s you see whether a member is ‘at-large’ (they represent everyone in the community) or if they represent a district (they are represent the people in a specific neighborhood or area of the community).  Many cities, counties, and school boards have a mix of district and at-large council members, so you may have more than one representative.  If you own a business that’s at a different address than your home, you may have influence with multiple council members.  It pays to know which representatives are impacted by your vote: “Most elected officials listen to people who live in their districts.”,  Devine shared, “They’re going to be more inclined to listen to you.”

5. Use an online system

Of course, online tools like Voterheads can be impactful as well.  “Voterheads is an outstanding way for people to get their voices heard,” Devine shared.

  In all,Devine gets about 20 contacts per week — mostly calls and emails for issues ranging from feral cats to ditches that need cleaning. “While the media focuses more attention on state and national issues,” Devine said, “when you’re talking about effecting real change, people have more power to get something changed on my level than they will in Washington.”


Jim DuPlessis is a veteran newspaperman, writer, data cruncher and Voterhead based in Columbia, SC.  You can reach him @JimDuPlessis
Want to understand your local government better?  Sign up at www.voterheads.com

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Karl McCollester
Karl McCollester
President & CEO at Voterheads
Karl has a passion for local government, working closely with Cities and Counties on their technology strategies for over a decade. Karl fearlessly leads this crack-team as our President and CEO.

"I love using technology and code to make people's lives better. I love hearing: 'Oh wow, we can do that?'"

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Karl has a passion for local government, working closely with Cities and Counties on their technology strategies for over a decade. Karl fearlessly leads this crack-team as our President and CEO. "I love using technology and code to make people's lives better. I love hearing: 'Oh wow, we can do that?'"

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