Almost all advocacy directed to state legislators from outside the Colorado Capitol is based on telling one or more of them how to vote on a given bill. Advocates on one side of a bill will tell legislators to vote “Yes” for one list of reasons, while advocates on the other side will tell legislators to vote “No” for another list of reasons. Advocates on the prevailing side will generally perceive that most legislators listened to them, while those on the losing side will generally perceive that most legislators didn’t listen to them.
It can be helpful to consider your goal when developing an advocacy effort. Is your goal to be heard or is it to achieve the desired outcome? In the scenario described above, advocates on the prevailing side might feel that they achieved both, while those on the losing side might feel that they failed to achieve either.
There is nothing wrong with telling one or more legislators how you want them to vote. However, asking questions can be an effective way to measure whether you are being heard and whether your side of an advocacy effort will eventually prevail. Professional advocates, meaning lobbyists, know the power of asking questions and the benefits of applying information gathered by asking those questions. Constituents can do the same, but rarely do so.
When advocating for or against a bill consider asking each legislator that you contact whether he/she is familiar with the bill. Their potential answers are probably “Yes” or “No”. If a legislator responds that he/she is not familiar with the bill, then you might proceed by explaining your position on that bill.
If that legislator responds that he/she is familiar with the bill, then you might ask whether he/she has taken a position on that bill. Once again, their potential answers are probably “Yes” or “No”. If a legislator responds that he/she has not taken a position on the bill, then you might proceed by explaining your position on that bill.
If that legislator responds that he/she has taken a position on the bill, then you might ask how he/she intends to vote on that bill. It is perfectly acceptable for you to ask a legislator how he/she intends to vote on a bill. It is equally acceptable for a legislator to answer.
If a legislator answers that question and he/she shares your position on the bill (for or against), then “Thank you” can be a very effective response. Legislators like to hear those words and advocates benefit from knowing which legislators agree with their position. Sometimes, such agreement and understanding can be achieved without having to tell a legislator anything about your position on the bill.
If a legislator opposes your position on the bill, then asking “Why?” can be an effective response. Giving that legislator the opportunity to explain his/her position might provide you with new information or insight. Be polite, don’t argue, and thank him/her for any explanation that he/she offers. Rather than learning about his/her opposition during a future vote on the bill, you might now have that information earlier in the process, which could help you be more effective in your advocacy efforts.
If a legislator is unfamiliar with a bill or is undecided about how he/she intends to vote on it, then you may have opportunity to explain your position(s) and why you’re asking for a certain vote (Yes or No).
Keep in mind that, when it comes to the passage or defeat of a bill, the Colorado legislative process is based on the rule of simple majority. If the bill that you are advocating for or against is headed to a committee of reference, then be aware of how many members serve on that committee. From there, determine how many votes you would need in order to achieve your desired outcome on that bill while it is before that committee.
Five-member committee = 3 votes for simple majority
Seven-member committee = 4 votes for simple majority
Nine-member committee = 5 votes for simple majority
Eleven-member committee = 6 votes for simple majority
Thirteen-member committee = 7 votes for simple majority
If a bill passes out of its last committee and is headed back to the House chamber, then 33 is a simple majority of 65 Representatives. In the Senate, 18 is a simple majority of 35 Senators.
Also keep in mind that, with passage of the GAVEL Amendment in 1988, the people of Colorado decided to require in their state constitution, that every bill that is introduced receive a public hearing before a committee of reference. As a result, the people of Colorado effectively opened advocacy efforts by constituents to all members of such committees. Regardless of whether your state Representative or state Senator serves on a particular committee, you are entitled to advocate your position to all members of that committee regardless of where you live.
Meanwhile, the GAVEL Amendment also established a constitutional prohibition on “caucus positions” and restricted the ability of members of the General Assembly to “…require or commit themselves or any other member or members, through a vote in a party caucus or any other similar procedure, to vote in favor of or against any bill, appointment, veto, or other measure or issue pending or proposed to be introduced in the general assembly.” That prohibition can be found in Article V, Section 22a of the Colorado Constitution.
Thus, while you are entitled to advocate your position on a bill to all members of a committee or chamber, the two state legislators who happen to represent you based on where you live are restricted in their abilities to do that work for you. Legislators can and do express their positions during public debate, but they are limited in their ability to influence how one or more other legislators will vote on a given matter.
There were likely many reasons why 72% of voters in Colorado supported the GAVEL Amendment in 1988. However, it seems likely that a common motivation was for their state legislators to be accountable to them, the people of Colorado, not other legislators.
It works that way in Colorado because that’s how the people of Colorado wanted it to work.