The presidential election of 2016 was one of the strangest things we’ve seen in the history of our country. No matter how you feel about the end result, one of the side effects from such an election is that a huge number of people who have never really paid attention to politics are now, as they say, “woke.”
One of the main things to remember about politics is that decisions do not end after you walk out of the voting booth. In fact, it’s just the beginning. Voting is essential, no doubt about that, but there are so many ways to get involved that have nothing to do with touch screens or black marks on a ballot. No matter who wins an election, one of the best things you can do is take on an attitude toward that elected official of, “OK, and now what will you do?”
Everyone knows about signing petitions online, Facebook groups dedicated to politics, attending rallies and protests, and all that jazz, but how much do know about the myriad of other ways you can get involved?
Be civic-minded and try one (or more!) of these tactics.
1. Contact Your Representatives
Yes, this one is obvious. However, when I say contact your representative, I don’t mean sending a form email that you found when you clicked through an email. I mean taking the time to actually CALL them. On the phone. Using your voice (or using TTY if you are hearing-impaired). Facebook recently introduced an excellent feature called Town Hall that makes it very convenient to contact the people who represent you, from local districts up to the federal level.
If you prefer not to go through Facebook, visit this nifty website to find the website for your town, which will tell you who is representing you in local government. Click on your state, find your county, then click on your town. Many people know who their federal representatives are, and everyone knows who the President of the United States is, but very few people know who’s who in their local government. And those are the people you want to know.
If you don’t know who your federal and state representatives are, enter your address at this website to find out.
The United States Capitol switchboard’s number is (202) 224-3121. Call that number, ask for the Senator or Representative you want to contact, and they’ll connect you.
And if you want them to really listen to you, check out this tweet from a former staffer that lays out what works and what doesn’t, or take it a step further and download her full Call The Halls guide.
2. Contact Representatives Other Than Your Own
This one is for federal officials, and for senators in particular. You see, U.S. Senators sit on all sorts of committees, and they make decisions that affect the entire country. They are, technically, representatives of and elected by their own states, but their actions are felt from coast to coast. Don’t be afraid of calling them and voicing your opinion, particularly when major issues are up for debate. To find out which senators sit on which committees, visit www.senate.gov and follow the links for committees.
3. Vote In EVERY Election, Every Time
It takes some legwork sometimes to find out about the people on local ballots. Many people know that the mayor of Chicago is Rahm Emanuel and the mayor of New York City is Bill de Blasio, but do you know who’s in charge of your town? How about the people on the school board, the group that is largely responsible for what happens in your kids’ schools – what do you know about them?
The thing is, while information on local candidates may not be as readily available, especially in smaller towns, it IS out there. A good place to start is often with national associations for certain groups, such as the National School Boards Association or The United States Conference of Mayors (for towns of 30,000 or more). Sites like these will often have state-specific pages where you can learn more about how things run in your state and county. So find that information, learn about your candidates, and then go vote.
4. Run For Local Office
If you really want to make a difference, run for office. Have you ever voted in a local election and seen just a single name listed for an office? Or an office that says something like “VOTE FOR NO MORE THAN FOUR” … but there are just two names there? Those people are running unopposed – their appearance on the ballot is just a formality. You don’t really have a choice there; that person has the job already.
The sentiments I hear most often are that people don’t feel qualified to run for office or that they don’t have the time to do it. While I understand those feelings and they are valid, it’s important to remember that change begins with us – we, the people. And if too many people take the approach of “let someone else do it,” then we run out of “someone else” very quickly. And you wind up with unopposed races and unfilled seats. Give it a shot.
5. Volunteer For A Campaign
It’s easy to give money to federal campaigns or even national parties. But have you ever considered going door-to-door to get support for your local city council? Have you ever thought about phone banking for your preferred school board candidate? Sure, it may not be as “glamorous” as saying you worked on a presidential campaign, but you can volunteer for the people who shop in the same grocery store as you do. The people who live in your neighborhood. And they need you.
6. Get (And Stay) Informed
If you get all of your political news from one source, you won’t get the full picture. Sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the like will give you straight-up news that you can count on. News sources that lean left or right can also be a good way to gauge how one side or the other is looking at a topic, and many of the obviously biased media organizations out there are sourcing everything back to reputable sources. Additionally, many of them are staffed with knowledgeable journalists and political science experts. Don’t discount them, but be discerning.
For more local information, the best thing you can do is attend local meetings. That could mean attending a meeting for an activist group that aligns with your political beliefs (or even one that’s in opposition to your beliefs – you might learn something new!), or it could mean making sure you’re present at city council and school board meetings. Those are open to the public and often include a period for open discussion and questions.
Commit To Learning Something New Every Day
If you’re a complete newbie to politics, it can be very overwhelming. And sometimes it really seems like those in power want it to be overwhelming. So if all of this is completely new to you, start by taking just five or ten minutes each day to learn something new. Read the U.S. Constitution here. Find your state’s constitution here and read it. Visit the websites for the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives and learn what bills are being considered. Read your local newspaper. Find and read the minutes of city council meetings.
Just never stop learning.