“Democracy is not a spectator sport.” This mantra, widely credited to Lotte Scharfman, the former president of the League of Women Voters, rings true today. However, an increasing number of people are feeling disillusioned with the state of our democracy. With concerns of increased campaign spending, fake news, and political disengagement, political pessimism is understandable. However, the fundamental unit of our democracy remains the citizen. Unprecedented campaign funds, disinformation campaigns, and political microtargeting are all reflections of where the real power lies: reaching you, the voter.
Our team at Represently is working everyday to assure citizens remain the focal point by giving them the tools to validate their influence in the democratic process. The founders of our country made an engaged citizenry the centerpiece of our democracy, and it is, thus, our duty as citizens to stay informed and involved in its functioning. This article is a short guide on how to do exactly that in the most effective way.
1) Know Who Your Representative and Senators are:
Every United States citizen has one congressional representative in the House of Representatives that is elected from their local district and two Senators elected from their state. A clear first step is finding out who your representatives are. Unfortunately, many Americans haven’t taken this first step, as a 2014 Pew Research Poll showed that only 53 percent of Americans could correctly identify the party of their representative and a 2015 poll of Millennials found that 77 percent couldn’t name a Senator from their home state. Representatives exist to serve your exact locale’s needs, which is essential in a country as diverse as ours. In addition, your leverage as a citizen comes from your ability to vote out a representative who isn’t doing their job – if you can’t vote for or against someone that does not represent you, you lack leverage! Therefore, it is an important to know who your lawmaker is and focus your advocacy on those who represent you.
2) The Best Outreach is Personalized Outreach:
The most effective way to influence your representative is personal communication. This can take many forms. A phone call, a visit to the local district or Washington, D.C. office, or inviting your lawmaker to an event are all great ways to personalize your outreach (email us if you want help holding a district civic event). Online messages can be effective as well, but if and only if you verify your status as constituent (for reasons outlined above). This is why collective online advocacy must include district verification. Moreover, personal narratives conveying the story behind your advocacy are exceptionally more effective than form content.
3) Focus Your Advocacy Locally:
Present your lawmaker with personal stories or data on how the issue directly affects your district. Congressional staff often disregard mass internet-based petitions where signees are not constituents. To make an impact on your representative, show that the issue is directly affecting their constituents.
A great example of this concept in action is the Nurturing and Supporting Healthy Babies (NSHB) Act introduced by Representative Evan Jenkins of West Virginia’s 3rd District that supports babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS) – a group of problems that happens when a baby is exposed to opioids in the womb. West Virginia has experienced some of the highest rates of opioid addiction and NAS in the country, prompting Representative Jenkins to introduce the legislation as part of the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act (CARA) passed in 2016. Through CARA, Congress allocated $181 million to combat the opioid crisis and Representative Jenkins was able to serve a specific, local need by attaching NSHB. Members of congress are institutionally incentivized to pay attention to their district’s local needs – their reelection depends on it – therefore, shape your advocacy to reflect this.
4) Keep At It:
There are best practices when it comes to staying engaged with one’s Congressional representative and their staff. Pulling from ten years’ worth of interviews and surveys with Congressional staffers, a Congressional Management Foundation report found that building personal relationships with staff through continued engagement is one of the most effective strategies to make your voice heard on Capitol Hill. Use the tools at your disposal to stay up to date on, and informed of, the issues your legislator will be voting on. Doing so will allow you to build a relationship with the office as a citizen-advocate. And, remember, like building any other relationship, it helps to be polite and respectful rather than demanding and rude. Kindness goes a long way.
5) Partner with Other Constituents and Advocacy Groups:
Partnering with likeminded individuals and existing groups will amplify your voice. As long as your advocacy stays consistent with the rules outlined above then adding more voices can only strengthen your position. In addition, hundreds of grassroots organizations exist to help your voice make its way to Capitol Hill. Working in tandem with like-minded organizations augments your influence.
At Represently, we’re building the tools to empower everyone to become an effective citizen-advocate. Our platform enables citizens to quickly find out who their representatives are, learn about issues, reach out to tell their story, to connect with likeminded individuals and groups, and measure their impact. We believe that the promise of our democracy is not lost – we just need to adapt the tools we use to engage with it.