Casting a ballot isn’t the only way to have a say in our democracy. There are opportunities every day to hold your elected representatives accountable.
Public trust in government is near historic lows. According to a 2019 Pew Research Center study, only 17 percent of Americans say they trust the government in Washington to do what is right, down from 77 percent in 1964. In a representative democracy, where citizens elect candidates to represent their interests, this steep decline of trust in our system is alarming.
Fortunately, there are signs of change. More and more Americans are participating in elections to hold our leaders accountable. Voter turnout in 2018 was the highest in a midterm election since 1914, with increases across all voting ages and racial and ethnic groups. The 2018 midterms also set records for the overall number of candidates and featured the most diverse pool of candidates in history, with a surge in the number of women and people of color running for public office.
Many Americans are feeling motivated to step up and create a government that is truly of the people, by the people, and for the people. But beyond voting and running for public office, what can average citizens do to make sure their voices are heard?
Here are a few of the ways you can help hold your representatives accountable, even when they aren’t up for reelection.
Know your reps. From the President to your local city council member, elected officials work for you. But if you’re like most Americans, chances are you don’t remember all of their names. A site like My Reps can provide this information easily – just enter your address to get the names, phone numbers, websites and social media accounts of your elected officials.
Call. There’s no universal rule about the most effective way to get your message through to a public official, but many staffers and advocates say that a phone call carries more weight than an email or letter. That’s because a blitz of phone calls is difficult to ignore, and a huge influx of them will grab the attention of an elected official’s entire office, often prodding them to respond or take action.
Emily Ellsworth, whose resume includes answering phones for two members of Congress, told The New York Times that “What representatives and staffers want to hear is the individual impact of your individual story…I couldn’t listen to people’s stories for six to eight hours a day and not be profoundly impacted by them.” Picking up the phone may seem daunting, but an app like 5calls makes it easy. This app lets you choose the issues you care about, then provides phone numbers for your representatives and scripts you can utilize when you call.
Write. Calls are effective, but the written word matters too. Many organizations spearhead campaigns that flood elected officials with emails, letters, and postcards to demonstrate how many people are engaged on a particular issue. As an individual, you may find that your experience or opinion is better expressed in writing than by phone. Especially at the local level, where elected officials are hearing from fewer constituents, a poignant and personal letter can have a real impact.
Show up. One of the most powerful things you can do as a citizen is to show up in person. That could mean attending public forums, meetings, or events that your state and federal representatives hold in your community, or local town hall or city council meetings. When you’re there in person, you can ask questions, share your opinions, or just listen to the promises your representatives make – so you can hold them accountable later on. These events often draw small crowds, offering an opportunity to communicate one-on-one with your elected officials. Sign up for e-newsletters from your reps or follow them on social media to find out when events are scheduled near you.
Want to show your strength in numbers? Participating in a rally, march, or open forum is another way to amplify your voice and ensure that your representatives can’t ignore the issues you care about. You might even find an opportunity to voice your position to any media in attendance, or connect with other advocates.
Track voting patterns. How will you know when it’s time to act? Pay attention to how your elected representatives vote on specific legislation, and look for patterns. Many legislators share their voting decisions through social media or email alerts. You can also use a site like Vote Smart to see voting patterns over time, or PolitiFact to check whether or not officials are telling the truth about their positions on different issues.
For a fuller understanding of why your representatives vote the way they do, check out OpenSecrets, a database of campaign donations maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. Here, you can learn about the donors who may have influence in our political system, which can provide insight into your representatives’ voting records.
Join a movement. All over the country, a grassroots movement is bringing citizens together to rebuild trust in government. It’s called RepresentUs, and it is dedicated to fixing broken elections, stopping political bribery, and ending secret money. RepresentUS supports a variety of good government efforts, including initiatives to end gerrymandering and stop the revolving door between public office and private lobbying jobs. The organization’s many local chapters, events, and campaigns make it easy for anyone, anywhere to get involved.
Join a Citizen Panel. If you’re reading this, you’re already part of a movement. At CGS, we’re committed to empowering citizens to make their voices heard by government, and soon we’re taking it one step further.
In partnership with the civic action organization Voice of the People, we’re developing a Citizen Panel initiative, in which statistically valid samples of voters in different Congressional districts participate in “policy simulations”. Each simulation gives participants information on one key issue facing Congress. They review different policy options, evaluate arguments for and against each one, and then make policy decisions in the same way their representatives do.
These simulations hold enormous potential as a solution to partisan gridlock. The results consistently show that voters are far less polarized in their views than their representatives in Congress, demonstrating that it’s possible to reach agreements across party lines. Citizen Panels will give representatives a window into what voters in their district really believe, allowing them to resist pressure from their most vocal (or moneyed) constituents. For voters, Citizen Panels offer the chance to become more informed about issues, learn what others in their district believe, and use that information to hold their elected leaders accountable.
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This article originally appeared in the July 27, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.
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