Saturday, September 23, 2023

How to get politically involved and hold your elected officials accountable

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Shreya Christina
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In 2016, Michigan’s congressional districts were among the most gerrymandered in the country, heavily favoring Republicans despite Democrats winning equal or more votes in local races. Frustrated, a group of Michigan voters with no political experience connected via Facebook to create a grassroots anti-gerrymandering campaign called Voters Not Politicians, collecting over 400,000 signatures in support of a ballot measure to redistrict the state. In November 2018, 61 percent of voters cast their ballot to support the creation of an independent citizens redistricting commission. “In Michigan, now we have the benefit of more competitive districts because we ended gerrymandering,” says Nancy Wang, the executive director of Voters Not Politicians.

In the case of Voters Not Politicians, their strategy was to demand a fairer system and to hold the powers that be to task for changing that system. Average citizens identified a problem and worked together to institute a change — and you can, too. While the political landscape can look dire, constituents shouldn’t feel powerless. “You actually have a lot of power,” Wang says. “Especially now, it’s people banding together. That’s how we change the system so it works for voters again.” A crucial aspect of our fragile democracy is to make our voices heard, both in times when the public is focused on core issues and when lawmakers are under less scrutiny.

From issues impacting the country on a national level, like student loan forgiveness or reproductive rights, to local concerns, like bike safety and school funding, individuals have plenty of tools available to hold their lawmakers accountable on promises they’ve made to their constituents.

Find causes you’re passionate about

Climate change, LGBTQ rights, gun violence: It’s easy to doomscroll and fall into a pit of despair thinking about the sheer amount of progress that hasn’t been made. Instead of spreading yourself thin across multiple causes — or worse, doing nothing because you don’t know where to start — put your efforts into a cause close to your heart. Have your kids been affected by cuts to school funding? Are you a cyclist who’s frustrated by a lack of bike lanes in your town? Does the news of abortion bans light a fire within you? Look to your emotions and probe your passions to find an issue you’ll want to spend time and resources supporting, ideally over an extended period.

“You have to find a personal tie to any issue that you’re deciding to champion so that you can really connect with people who are also impacted by that issue,” says Philadelphia-based public health activist Alexandra Hunt. “If there isn’t that personal tie, the activism that you might get involved with can feel a little empty to both yourself and to others involved.”

Who to talk to

While national issues get a fair amount of media attention, your efforts will make the most impact on a local level. For example, abortion and reproductive rights have been a topic of national conversation since Roe was overturned in June, but laws banning abortion are passed on a state level. Every law or political agenda item can be traced back to someone or some group. Concerned about local funding for police departments? The mayor and town council work together to set and pass the budget. If you’re passionate about housing and construction in your town, you’ll want to get in touch with the town planning and zoning committee or board. Want stricter gun laws passed in your state? Your state legislator is the person to contact.

Online tools like Find Your Legislator allow you to enter your address and will then display your legislators on the state and federal levels. Your town and state websites will have lists of representatives, the mayor, council and board members, and other elected officials.

Research these legislators’ voting histories. In order to hold lawmakers accountable, you should be prepared to reference their past actions and statements. If a state senator ran on protecting abortion access and then votes for bills restricting or banning abortion, that’s information you’ll want to know. “We have receipts, we have proof,” says Christian F. Nunes, the president of the National Organization for Women. “And we’re able to hold people accountable by their words that they have said and the promises that they have made. If they’re not living up to what they’ve promised … we have the right to call them on what they have or have not done.”

Especially as midterm elections approach and candidates up and down the ballot make attempts to appeal to voters, declaring their legislative intentions should they win their races, citizens can use these campaign promises as benchmarks for their legislators’ willingness to follow through. Campaign websites are great documents to reference when comparing lawmakers’ promises versus their actions, Nunes says.

For more context, read your local newspaper, including the editorial and op-ed pages, and follow coverage of your community, Wang says, to stay abreast of who’s championing what topic.

Getting on their radar

Securing time with a lawmaker doesn’t have to be mystifying. Their job is to connect with the people they represent. First, start with city council, county commission, school board, zoning, or other local legislative meetings, like town halls. If there is a public comment portion of the meeting, you’ll have a chance to speak up then.

Remember, elected officials are regular people outside of their roles and you should feel comfortable talking with them the same way you would communicate with a friend, Wang says. Keep the lines open and you’re likely to forge an ongoing conversation. “When something comes up that concerns you, or when they do something you approve or disapprove of, give the office a call, send an email, tag them in a post, slide in their DMs,” she says. Once you’re in regular contact with the lawmaker and their office, they may give you more direct means of communication with the elected official, like their personal phone number. “Then you can just continue to share your thoughts and concerns with them,” Hunt says.

If you’d like to request a meeting, find your state or federal lawmaker’s website and send an email or fill out the contact form specifying that you’re a constituent, what you’d like to talk about, a bill number, if possible, and dates you can meet. For US senators and representatives, make sure you’re reaching out to their local office and not their Washington, DC, office. You can follow up with a call to their offices to speak with a staffer to schedule a meeting if you haven’t heard back in a few days. Be aware that you may not get face time with the lawmaker, but with a member of their staff instead — that’s fine and shouldn’t impact the nature of your message. “Make sure you build a relationship with everyone involved and don’t mistreat anyone because the elected didn’t show,” Hunt says.

Once you’ve secured a meeting, make sure you arrive early, keep your talking points succinct and impactful (more on this below), and make sure you’ve done your research into the issue at hand. Avoid arguments and name-calling, even if you disagree with what the elected official is saying. Be concrete in your ask — confirmation they will vote for additional arts funding in the budget, that they will address unsafe intersections where multiple accidents have occurred — and find out when you can follow up with them to hear their plan for moving forward.

After, send a thank-you note that reiterates your message and includes any supplemental materials like facts and statistics the elected official may have asked for.

Sharing your message

So you’ve found your cause, the lawmaker responsible for making change (or not fulfilling their end of the bargain), and you have time on the calendar. Now to craft your message. Hunt suggests focusing on personal stories — either your own or someone else’s (with their permission) — of how you’ve been affected by recent laws or lack thereof. You can share how it feels to be a pregnant person in a state with an abortion ban, or how student loan debt is preventing you from building your savings.

Utilize your research into this lawmaker during these personal appeals, Hunt says. You can say, “I know you’re really passionate about ending gun violence because it impacted your family,” or, “I know you don’t often discuss voting rights but I’d love to tell you how this affects my life.” “Tying into what’s important to them and why they have to champion [this issue] leads to that bond of understanding between two people,” Hunt says.

Don’t forget the power in positive messages, too, Wang says. When a local politician follows through on campaign promises or introduces legislation after speaking with members of the community, reach out to voice your support and to share how these changes would affect your life. Your representative can use those positive stories when arguing for how their proposed legislation would impact constituents.

You can share these stories via email, by a phone call to your rep’s office, on social media, or in person at council or legislative meetings by scheduling an appointment during their office hours, or while they’re attending community events.

If you’re a member of an organization, the organization can provide training or talking points on how to converse with lawmakers. However, try thinking of the conversation as just that: a conversation. These legislators were elected to serve the people, and that’s you. You have every right to make your concerns heard. “They are also considered employees of yours, when you think about it,” says Jasmine Burney-Clark, founder and consulting director of Equal Ground, a Black-led, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to build Black political power in Florida. “Don’t fear asking an employee about their work performance. They owe you that.”

Making a habit of communicating with your legislators

Ideally, you’ll want to make regular check-ins with lawmakers, and not only when they’ve dropped the ball or after a major news event. Continue to show up to meetings, town halls, or coffee chats if local elected officials hold them. “Connecting with them outside of their office in the community will help keep you in the front of their mind for when you need a meeting or a call,” Nunes says.

Introduce yourself to local leaders at community events, Hunt says, and give them a brief overview of the issue you’re passionate about so you can become a familiar face amid their constituency. “If you’re a housing activist, make sure you tell them that as you’re shaking their hand and tell them your intentions,” Hunt says. “And then the lawmaker or their staff can take your information or provide you with information on how best to get in touch to get a response.” She recommends saying something like, “Hi, [elected official name], so nice to meet you. I’m [your name] and I’m pretty involved in what’s going on with [public health, housing, voting rights]. What’s a good way to reach out to your office to set up a meeting and discuss this?”

If you’re a part of a grassroots or activist group, invite legislators to your regular meetings to give them an opportunity to work with you, and follow your lawmakers on social media to stay connected on their activity, Nunes says. Replying to a tweet or a Facebook post or sending a DM are low-stakes ways to vocalize your opinion.

When you’re not being heard

Despite all your best efforts, you may feel like your concerns are being overlooked. This is when having those receipts comes in handy, Nunes says. You can make an appeal on Twitter, at a public hearing or a council meeting, sharing how you’ve made plenty of attempts to discuss the matter with your representative and they’ve made promises they haven’t fulfilled. You can say something like, “You promised you were going to [introduce street sweeping/protect access to abortion/increase funding for parks], but I see you doing something else instead. Can you explain this?”

The more people who voice these concerns, the more powerful the message will be. Encourage others in your community or activist group to speak out at meetings and to write emails highlighting contradictions.

If all else fails, vote them out. Find and support (financially, vocally, or by volunteering for their campaign) a candidate who will be receptive to constituents’ needs and who has similar views on the issues of importance to you.

“We need to start tapping more into our strength as voters,” Nunes says, “and not tolerating people just because they think they have more power.”

Even Better is here to offer deeply sourced, actionable advice for helping you live a better life. Do you have a question on money and work; friends, family, and community; or personal growth and health? Send us your question by filling out this form. We might turn it into a story.


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