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How to Take an Active Part in America’s Democracy

When we think of being a good citizen, the obvious things that come to mind are aspects of community benevolence: Take your turn at four-way intersections. Pay your taxes. Clear your portion of the sidewalk. Participate in town fundraisers. Buy local.

But being a good citizen goes higher than local. It means voting, from local to national. Knowing who your representatives are. Voicing your opinion on both issues. Introducing or supporting ballot measures in your town or city.   In short, being an active citizen in our democracy.

At Common Ground Committee, we realize that understanding how to be an active citizen can be difficult.  Elected officials come and go.  It can be hard to keep track.  Sure, you may also like to pick up the phone on an issue to let someone know what you think. But maybe you don’t know what to say or do.

Read on for our guide that will help you.

Find your local representatives

Not sure of your congressional district or who your member is? This government site matches your ZIP code to your congressional district, with links to your member’s website and contact page.  You can find your senator at this site too (live link to U.S. Senate: Senators)

Contact your Representative or Senator

When you really care about an issue under consideration, how and where do you express yourself? In a letter (or email) to your Senator. Many, many people sign petitions, which while useful, are not the most impactful. An individual message is a uniquely effective bullhorn. Remember to consider the urgency of timing. If you are writing concerning a pending vote, email is your best option as security screenings may delay receipt of a physical letter by up to three weeks. Bear in mind that unique and moving messages can be shared more widely with the members of Congress.

Here’s a sample model for a letter to a Senator.

Perhaps you would prefer to call?  You can either call the Capitol’s main number at (202) 224-3121 and be connected or for House Representatives, you can look up the number at Find Your Representative | house.gov.  For Senators, you can use this link U.S. Senate: Contacting U.S. Senators

When you do make a phone call, it is useful to remember the following:

  • Be prepared to offer your name and zip code
  • Be courteous. Staff members are always willing to hear your point of view but polite communication will be welcomed (even if you disagree with your rep’s stance on an issue).  go a long way.
  • If you are calling about a specific piece of legislation have the details handy such as the name.

You may also wish to sign up for Issue Voter where you can easily see what legislation is underway and quickly support or express that you disagree.

Step Up to the Podium

If a stint in politics appeals to you, but you haven’t zeroed in on the position that you’d like to run for, start with your city, county, or state’s election website. It will have information about specific roles, rules for campaigning, and requirements for holding office. While you’re there, check residency, age, and other requirements for any role you’re considering. What are the incumbent’s circumstances? Do you believe you could offer the community more? This article in Kiplinger outlines Kathy Tran’s successful path for the Virginia state legislature when her previous political experience was PTO president. Also, a number of panelists in our public forums have encouraged the audience to run for office but to start locally, for example with a position on the town council. It’s hard to break into politics at higher levels and even if you win an election for such an office, you won’t have relationships in place that you will need to be successful in the position.

Register to Vote

Whatever your political preference, your right to vote gives you the chance to be heard and impact the direction of our country. According to data from the U.S. Elections Project in 2016, 43 percent of voters did not fill out their ballots. Why? Many Americans don’t know enough about the voting process, how to register, or are unaware of registration deadlines. Rock the Vote provides an easy link to get started on your registration in moments. Vote411 from the League of Women Voters Education Fund can also help you check your registration status, get registered, and find information about the issues.

Help at the Election Day Polls

Election workers are essential to ensuring that elections are a success. With each election, millions of Americans dedicate themselves to sustaining the backbone of democracy – our election process. EAC encourages those interested in becoming election workers at the polls on election day to learn more about what is required and how to sign up to work with your local election official.

With freedom comes responsibility.  Each of us has unique views and cares about a variety of issues.  When we all participate as active citizens, America’s democracy is stronger.

Learn more about Common Ground Committee and stay up to date on important issues.

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