Local Organizing

The “Not So Empty Chair” Town Hall Action Planning Guide


Table of Contents:

  1. The Stakes
  2. Goals, Strategy, and Tactics
  3. Planning
  4. Running the Event
  5. Additional Resources

The stakes of this recess

February recess starts February 17—and it's the one year anniversary of the recess that put the world on notice that Indivisible groups were a force to be reckoned with. Last February, when hundreds of thousands of us showed up in a big way, recess set the stage for the eventual defeat of efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

This February, even as we look ahead to November, Congress still has a full plate: the Dream Act, a regressive infrastructure bill, Dodd-Frank repeal, and maybe a (good) net neutrality bill—in addition to funding the government. The Trump Threat Level on North Korea could rise at any moment, and the Mueller investigation continues to play out. This toolkit has all of that covered.

For the next congressional recess we are coming back to our roots in a big way. Town halls, and especially empty chair town halls, have been a hallmark of the great work Indivisibles have done to hold our Members of Congress (MoCs) accountable. Town hall meetings were the first place that many of us felt empowered to speak truth to power. Such as Rep. Trott , who felt the displeasure of their constituents back in April 2017 for his position on repealing the ACA.

And when our MOCs wouldn’t listen to our concerns or deign to attend our town halls we took back the narrative by creating a new one without them that was informed by concerned citizens. This toolkit will put a new spin on a classic tool that has been so effective for us: the empty chair town hall.

Goal, Strategy, Tactics

The goal

Our members are there to represent us. We’ll invite our MoC to address us on their votes, and we’ll invite challengers to their seats as well. Most MoC’s won’t attend, but we can use these empty chair town halls to remind our MOCs that we remember the votes that they have taken and that we will hold them accountable for bad votes that hurt our community. And we’ll remind them that there are challengers waiting to take their place and to do right by our communities.

The strategy

We will shine a spotlight on the votes that our members of congress have taken by hosting a town hall and inviting both our MoC and their challengers, while making it clear that we intend to hand them their pink slips for ignoring and avoiding us. We’ll also be able to  promote the positions of progressive candidates that are waiting to unseat our MOC incumbents.

The tactic

Plan your own town hall/forum to discuss critical issues if your MoC refuses to have one of their own. By inviting both your MoC and their challengers, you will provide a prime opportunity to highlight their votes on the issues we care about, while holding up the alternative if they refuse to engage.  These candidates will provide analysis of how the MoC’s votes on important issues, like the #TrumpTaxScam, are affecting our communities and what they would have done differently if they had been our elected official.

How to Plan an Empty Chair / Adopt a District Town Hall

Reach out to other groups in your District to ask if they want to plan a joint event. Hold a team meeting/convene a call with your group’s event planners.

During the meeting:

  1. Outline the idea and give folks clarity around what you’re working to do here.
  2. Identify the best time and location for your event. Find a location that is close to or centrally located to everyone you hope to invite. If you have public transportation in your city/town try to make sure that its easily accessible to public transport.  Also, make sure that the building is ADA accessible and friendly. Accessibility is key, so keep in mind how people will get there and when people are most available.
  3. Set a goal for how many people you would need to fill the room. Think of how many people you can realistically attract to this kind of event from your existing regulars. Then set a realistic goal for how many more people you can add to this group of attendees.
  4. Identify a strategy for recruitment. Putting out Facebook invites are a great start, but we want to be more proactive in our outreach to make sure we get people to the town hall. Cultivate multiple forms of recruitment: social media posts/shares, calls, email blasts. Delegate recruitment responsibility evenly to your planning group. Make sure you are getting real commitments through online signups. Register the event online HERE and we can help recruit!
  5. The emcee and the facilitators should plan a “run of show” ahead of time. You should plan to give the candidates a set amount of introduction time, how much time you are prepared to give to each question before you move on, whether or not you will allow follow up questions, etc.
  6. Designate key roles:
    • Candidate Wrangler: someone who invites both your MoC and pitches challenger candidates and helps them and their staff work through the logististics.
    • Logistics Lead: in charge of reserving/setting up the venue, managing A/V, etc. The folks managing this should then transition to location prep/management and seat shepards as the event is taking place.
    • Emcee & Facilitators: there will need to be someone to introduce the candidate(s) as well as making sure that there is some framework for the town hall. There should be facilitators that pass the mic(s) around to get an even disbursement of questions.
    • Photographer/Videographer: this is really important. Without photos and video, the event might as well not have happened.
    • Recruitment Lead: recruitment is a team job. But it doesn’t hurt to have one or two recruitment leads to focus on getting sign ups.
    • Social Media Coordinator: have someone live tweet/facebook your event. Tag @IndivisibleTeam on twitter so that we can help by retweeting and sharing your images with national press. On Facebook, tag @IndivisibleGuide and try to record in one steady, clear video if possible!
    • Press Liaison: have a designated central person on your team who is handling media enquiries, and make sure press know how to reach them. Your interactions with the media can become part of the story. Journalists can use the information in your emails or on social media to help shape their story, so always be mindful of the tone and content.
  7. Collect RSVPs for the action by linking to your event on Indivisible’s map. Register the event online HERE and we can help recruit!
  8. Write and send any press materials you need to bring out the media. To change the narrative on an issue, it’s critical to get media attention at constituent events. Get started with our local organizing explainer, “How to Get Press to Cover Your Event.”
  9. Make sure you have signs for the event. The classic “agree, disagree” cards still work great!

Reach out to your MoC and challengers to their seat:

Reach out to the MoC, and the candidate(s) who are running against your MoC and ask them to attend your event as the main speaker(s). Be clear that this is a non-partisan, non-electoral event, but rather an opportunity to speak directly to the issues. MoC’s ideally would love the chance to explain their votes.

This is a great opportunity for you to highlight why your MoC’s choices are no longer consistent with the values of the district. It’s also a great opportunity for their challengers to explain how they could do a better job.

On the day of the action

  • Print sign-in sheets before the event. It’s important to collect attendee information so that you can follow up all your attendees and share information on upcoming plans or meetings.
  • Get there early to catch everyone as they are coming in. If you have a list of suggested questions make sure to pass them out as people are coming in. It’s also really important that the candidate(s) and the emcee get there early with facilitators to rehearse the run of show and how the emcee is going to manage the questions. The emcee should run through a dress rehearsal with the facilitators a few times until it feels smooth.
  • The Social Media Coordinator should record, live-tweet and/or Facebook-live the entire experience.
    • Make sure that you are recording and taking photos horizontally, not vertically. It really helps the video get shared and makes it usable for press.
    • Be sure to tag your Member of Congress.
    • Be sure to tag @IndivisibleTeam on Twitter.
    • Post photos of the action to your social media accounts!
  • Send your stories, pictures, and best practices to stories@indivisibleguide.com.

Running the Event

  • The emcee should kick things off, reminding the crowd of the incumbents’ votes and the impacts they’ll have on people across the state. The emcee should also note if the incumbent hasn’t shown up, and take time to introduce the candidates who have.
  • The emcee should have the questions they want to ask set up and ready to go. (Options for questions can be found in our February Recess Policy Priorities and Town Hall Questions Toolkit.)
  • The emcee should ask one question at a time, and then pass the mic, addressing each candidate by name and thanking them for their answers. (If the incumbent has shown, start with them!)
  • The emcee should take time to ask questions specifically related to the Dream Act and the #TaxScam.
  • After the emcee has gone through all of their questions, fine to close and remind the audience of the incumbent’s vote again, and reiterate that the crowd is going to be thinking of these votes in November.
  • Thank the candidates, thank the crowd, plug your next meeting and close gracefully!

Additional Resources

In addition to the new tactics above, take a look at the following resources for more information and ideas:

Adopt-A-District ToolkitInvite a neighboring MoC to a town hall in your district if your MoC continues to refuse to listen to his/her constituents.  

Missing Member ToolkitThis action plan includes steps to take if you can’t find your MoC, including hosting your own empty chair town hall.  

Standing Indivisible at Town HallsIf your MoC is actually having a town hall, make the most of it by following these tips.

Tips for Sham Town HallsWhat to do if your MoC holds a tele-town hall, private town hall or other type of town hall meant to suppress your voice.

Indivisible Austin’s Constituent Town Hall Toolkit: Indivisible Austin shares great advice on Town Halls with your Member of Congress. Most of this guide applies to “mock” or “ghost” Town Halls that your MoC does not attend.