On Nov. 4, as we waited for the results of 2020’s national election, a friend and professor Rob Saler posted “The work is the work” on his social media. Just when the work felt like a wrap.
The work of democracy is only part of the work. Keeping a government by the people and for the people requires effort from all of us, not just elected officials. We have the responsibility and the right to participate in our own governance year round.
True, our elected officials do the brunt of the work. On election day, we voted for women and men to stand in for us, but we are representatives in our own right. When a candidate’s position on an issue is unclear or different from ours, they need to hear from us. We need to write, call, or meet with them. You’ve heard the old saying, “No news is good news,” but it’s not a truism. Our silence makes it difficult for our representatives to prioritize or justify dissent from lobbyists or other stakeholders.
Consider this scenario: A majority of people in a municipality want cleaner energy sources that are renewable, that provide good paying jobs, and have growth possibilities. A lobby group appears for one industry, then a lobby group for an opposing industry shows up. Practiced in gaining access, both groups begin to woo council members during in-person meetings. If we are quiet, then our council members make a choice for us. If a smattering of locals get involved, council members may yet listen to outside lobbyists. They’ll favor the message that they prefer as an individual.
Suddenly we may flood them with form letters provided by interest groups. To this they may say, “This number of people seems to be on this side, but what is their personal stake?” When we fill seats at meetings it speaks to which side is most invested. When we write personal letters, make phone calls, or meet with our elected officials then they gather our positions and the reasons we stand behind those. Our council people have to justify their positions to the lobbyists, to each other, and to the voters. Their best material comes from personal and well-informed interactions with us. If we gain their trust by being authentic, having “rigor in our logic,” - as Francis Frei of Harvard Business School says, and we have the goodwill of our community in mind, we may even persuade them to change positions.
Why don’t we pursue this activity more often? Do we think we’ll be wasting our time?
It can feel disempowering when we approach our elected officials knowing they don’t want to hear or honor our positions. In 2009, when I lived in Pennsylvania, I took my 12-year-old daughter and a fellow teacher with me to three personal meetings with state representatives to speak about education policies affecting us. Each meeting proceeded differently. One senator was in a committee meeting, so he delegated his secretary to hear our concerns. She graciously engaged us, taking detailed notes. Another senator sent his team of education-focused staff members to discuss the issues with us. We spent 30 minutes with them, and they addressed questions to my daughter. In the final meeting, we met with dismissive opposition from the representative himself. He spoke rudely, ignored my daughter, and told us he’d already made up his mind to the contrary. While none of the meetings may have changed policies that day, it mattered that we constituents spent time and money to talk about how the policies affected us. It communicated the value we placed on our concerns. That kind of meeting is called advocacy.
There’s a difference between advocacy and lobbying. Advocacy tells officials how a policy affects lives. Advocacy informs fellow citizens about an issue. It takes a position, but doesn’t ask an elected official to introduce, change, or vote for/against a particular piece of legislation. Advocacy can be a powerful tool to inform and persuade regarding issues not parties or people. Advocacy is how we can influence officials and constituents who take a different stance. We need both advocacy and lobbying from the constituents. We have the agency to represent our positions. In doing so, we are participating in government.
There’s a difference between government and politics, despite what Senator John Cornyn (R-Texas) said in these words, “You can’t take the politics out of politics ...” In fact, we can. We can engage with our government without only appealing to our preferred party, if we even favor one. We can participate on commissions, listen to or read the communications from our mayors, governors, and others. We can read laws that affect us.
One critical way to participate in democracy this year is to advocate for fair redistricting. Sen. Cornyn finished that previous provocative statement about politics with “and there’s nothing more political than redistricting.” In short, he meant to say redistricting was a competition between parties to out-maneuver each other. If we want better representation, we citizens need to hold our officials accountable starting with redistricting.
Here’s how. First, participate in each decade’s census. With accurate counts, we are allocated fair federal funding and seats in the House of Representatives. Second, call for non-partisan redistricting in the following year. 2021 is such a year. This year’s nine-member commission for redistricting drew the interest of 300-plus citizens who want a fair vote and zero gerrymandering. While we can’t all be on that commission, we can stay informed via the League of Women Voters, FairVote Indiana, and, in a more entertaining twist, learn via games. Check out http://gametheorytest.com/gerry/ or play Mapmaker - The Gerrymandering Game online at boardgamearena.com. Third, once we understand the process, contact our representatives, and speak as an informed citizen about why it matters to have a fair vote and how it improves government for all.
The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information about the League, visit the website www.lwvmontco.org or voice mail 765-361-2136.