Fostering Community Dialogue
and Participation

Critical Times

"Democracy is not a spectator sport."

HOW TO MAKE YOUR VOICE HEARD


You don’t need to wait four years before you get your next say in how the government is run. Presidents get a lot of coverage, but there are also plenty of day-to-day decisions in government, both national and local, that shape our laws and lives. Here’s how you can make your voice heard before election day rolls around again.


1.  CALL YOUR CONGRESSIONAL REPRESENTATIVE

  • Phone calls speak louder than emails or letters. A pile of mail may be impressive, but a phone that rings all day is impossible to ignore. Still, any message is better than none, and emails are easy to send.  
  • In-person meetings are even better. Bring an expert or someone with a personal story—or bring a crowd to protest. You can meet with a staffer at the local office, or try to catch the congressperson himself at a town hall meeting or a ribbon cutting.
  • Only bug your officials about things they can control. Your house representative doesn’t vote on cabinet nominees. Your national senator can’t do anything about a bill in your state senate. Neither of them have any direct control over whether that pothole in front of your house gets filled. Make sure you’re contacting the right person for the job.
  • Call your congressperson, not somebody else’s. They and their staffers will listen to the people in their district, and typically ignore everybody else. If you don’t like what, say, Paul Ryan is doing, call your representative and ask her what she is doing to stand up to his shenanigans.


If you’re phone-phobic, write a short script that condenses your point in a sentence or two. Since most calls just end up as a point in a tally of who is saying what, you don’t need to overthink the phrasing. Try something like this for your first call:

“Hi, my name is [NAME] and I’m a constituent from [PLACE]. I’m calling to ask [REPRESENTATIVE’S NAME] to vote [YES/NO] on [BILL].”

2. LEARN HOW LOCAL GOVERNMENT WORKS

Most of the laws governing your day-to-day life come from your state and local government,  so that’s often where you can have the biggest impact. If you get all of your news from national sources, you may have missed out on this fact, so take a minute to look around for social media and news sources that will keep you up to date on your state and local politics.To make sense of it all, you’ll need to know who actually represents you. Besides your senators and representative in the national legislature, you probably also have:

  • State Representatives/Delegates and State Senators, who make state laws.
  • A Governor, who is sort of like the president of your state; they can sign or veto state laws.
  • A School Board, whose decisions can indirectly affect you whether you have kids in school or not.
  • Local Officials, which may include a town or city council, county officials, and perhaps a mayor. Many states also elect judges. 

Look up who all these people are, what they do, and where you’re most likely to meet them in person.  (click the links below to learn more about your elected officials and when they meet).


State representatives have fewer people demanding their time than national representatives do, so it may be easier to snag a meeting with them. You can also attend council meetings and speak at town hall events.


None of these people’s jobs last forever, though. Check how long your elected officials’ terms are, and when each is next up for re-election. While you’re doing this, take note of the dates for elections. November isn’t the only month with a voting day, after all. Primaries occur earlier in the year, and in some states, local elections and special elections may occur at other times. 


3. PAY ATTENTION TO ISSUES THAT MATTER TO YOU

Keep an eye on the issues that matter to you. There is so much going on in government, you can't expect to keep track of everything.

Set up custom Google Alerts for your representatives and local politicians, so you can thank or rebuke them when they do something noteworthy. And join up with groups, local and national, that care about the issues you care about. They can keep you informed about what legislation is in process, and they often coordinate campaigns, for example to call in to a particular legislator’s office en masse on a certain day.

If you’re not sure where to look, here is a list of local and state advocacy groups you can connect with. 


Apps like Votespotter (iOS/Android) and Congress (Android) can help you keep track of how your politicians are voting on issues you care about.  Countable (iOS/Android) provides background information on bills and the main arguments for and against them. You can also choose which issues to follow. The app includes buttons for tons of different ways to contact your congresspeople: phone, email, social media, and even an option to make a short video about your opinion.


4.  CHANGE THE SYSTEM

If you always feel like you’re voting for the lesser of two evils, it doesn’t have to be that way. There are things you can do to influence the way voting works, and the candidates that end up on the ballot.

After the 2020 census, states will be able to redraw the boundaries of their voting districts. Badly drawn districts—better known as gerrymandering—skew votes in favor of one party or another. But groups like the non-partisan FairVote advocate for an end to this practice. Many states have their own advocacy groups on topics like these, too, like Fair Districts PA.

FairVote is also one of the organizations pushing for alternate voting systems, like ranked choice voting, which would give third parties a more realistic chance at getting elected. 


5. RUN FOR OFFICE OR HELP A FRIEND RUN.

Voting and organizing are only part of the picture. You could also be the person in office. But you’ll have to start the process of getting on the ballot well in advance of the next election. It takes time to gather support among citizens and among members of your chosen political party, and also to comply with any necessary deadlines, disclosures, or required petitions.

If you live in a sleepy small town where most candidates run unopposed, it may not be too hard to get on the ballot and even have a chance of winning. In more competitive districts and for bigger offices, you have more of an uphill climb. 

Even if you’re not sure you want to run, learning about the process can help you decide where your efforts are best spent.