How to Change a Law Through the Democratic Process

Books on black and brown wooden shelf.jpg

Think about the chapter in your civics class titled "How a Bill Becomes Law." Simple, wasn't it? The reality of law-making--and changing--in a democracy is considerably more complex.

The hardest part of changing laws is to involve other citizens in your cause. Once you've mastered the most difficult part, however, there's a well-defined procedure to follow.

1 Understand it

Understand what it is you want to change. Is it a federal, state or local law? Is it a regulation or is it an "establishment" clause--a law that sets up an organization or establishes a definition or class?

2 Find people who agree with you

Find people who agree with you. These may be neighbors in the case of a local ordinance or people across the country who feel that a law discriminates against them, too. It never hurts to enlist an attorney into your group but remember that attorneys tend to have more ideas on how to use laws than how to change them.

3 Decide your problem

Decide what your problem with the law is. Does it violate the "equal protection" concept (is it discriminatory?), is it unconstitutional or is it just not working? Before you attack a law on the grounds that it is unconstitutional, be sure to check the legislative history of the law (found in the annotated statutes) and any court cases that have been decided based on the law or the section of the constitution you are using. To prove that a law doesn't work, all you need is a petition or anecdotal (examples) evidence.

4 Decide where to take your problem

Decide where to take your problem. If you simply want the law changed, contact your representative with your complaint and evidence. This is obviously a simpler process at the local level where you can go down to city hall and ask to see your alderperson. At the state or federal level, you'll need to find your representative's local office or conduct your business by correspondence. Be sure to keep copies of all correspondence. Send copies but keep the originals as well as copies of any petitions or evidence until you have an opportunity to deliver the originals in person.

5 Make your case

Make your case. When you finally get to speak to your representative or address the legislative council, board or assembly, lay out the reasons you think the law should be changed and present your petitions, evidence or those who are joining you to give their testimony. The better organized and more logical your arguments are, the better your chances are to get your point across. Most legislators or bodies will not respond immediately but will take some time to do their own research.

6 Follow through

Follow through. Be sure to find out when the next hearing on your issue will be. Meetings (with their agendas) are required by Open Meetings laws to be posted, generally in a newspaper of record or in a physical place, such as the bulletin board at city hall. Many governmental bodies also post meeting notices on line. If your issue has been referred to a committee for study, find out when that committee meets (committee meetings must also be posted) and keep in contact with a member or the chairperson (ask your representative for a recommendation). Keep in contact so that your issue doesn't get set aside for something else--generally a "squeakier wheel".

7 Publicize your efforts

Publicize your efforts. Encourage others to contact their representatives. This is how political action committees achieve success. If you tell some one and she tells two people and they each tell two people and so on, your representative will see real support for the change you have advocated.

8 Participate

Participate in the framing of the new bill. Ask to testify to the committee, board or council that is responsible for determining what the new law should say. Bring more people and evidence. Talk to legislators so they understand your point of view. Yes, this is called lobbying (because it's often done in the lobby before and after meetings). It is a necessary part of the process if legislators are to know what their constituents want.

9 Once the change has been agreed upon

Once the change has been agreed upon, keep track as your bill is written and goes through the hearing and voting process. Be present when the executive signs the bill into law.

An avid perennial gardener and old house owner, Laura Reynolds has had careers in teaching and juvenile justice. A retired municipal judgem Reynolds holds a degree in communications from Northern Illinois University. Her six children and stepchildren served as subjects of editorials during her tenure as a local newspaper editor.