Soapbox

Voting only the first step in citizenship

I hope you voted. But if that’s all you do, you may be disappointed.

The problem is that merely voting doesn’t tell those elected what to do. If you truly care about making a difference in our political system, you must learn how to keep on top of elected officials after the election.

Election Day is like the day you hire an employee, only you are “hiring” an elected representative. Just as in the workplace, you must give them a job description and supervise them. One of the reasons people are so sour about politics is they don’t understand this process. Most people, if they even vote, turn away from politics the day after the election.

Just as an employee with no instructions will create their own job description and set their own goals, so will your elected officials choose what’s important – unless you tell them otherwise. Lobbyists and special interest groups know that the real work of changing public policy and government starts the day after the election. That’s when those people elected to office look around and ask: “What do we do now?”

If you really want something from government, you have to tell them what you want them to do. You have to instruct your employee how to do their job and correct their mistakes – not just once, but continually,

Why don’t more people do this? I conducted focus group research in nine states, including California, and asked why people don’t follow up elections by communicating with elected officials. The primary reasons:

▪ Politicians don’t care what I think.

▪ I don’t know what to say.

▪ The one who represents me is from the other party.

▪ I don’t have enough time.

▪ Elected officials are too busy, too important and unapproachable.

These reasons are wrong, dead wrong.

I have interviewed more than 500 elected officials in 47 states over the last 30 years, and they all say the same thing: I would welcome more input from the people who can vote for me and have a specific problem that might be solved by legislation. What they mean is policy and laws, not what they call casework: a personal problem such as a missing benefit check. They don’t hear from that many well-informed people on a given policy issue.

As for what to say, tell them about your life at work and in the community, and what needs fixing. They want to hear your story because in all likelihood you know more than they do about your issue.

As for partisan affiliation, they usually don’t know and don’t care about party if you can vote for them. Furthermore, you may be surprised that the issues you care about are not “party” issues, just problems that need to be solved. Politicians love to solve problems.

You can supervise your elected officials without investing much time or traveling to Sacramento or Washington, D.C. One phone call or one written communication, especially a thoughtful letter – yes, even in the Internet age – can move a politician to action.

As for celebrity, you may see politicians in the news or at events being treated like royalty. Don’t be fooled. They know who puts them in office. If you have anything at all sensible to say, you can probably get a cup of coffee with your state senator or Assembly member.

You can have significant power far beyond just voting, and you can make a difference in public policy. Just make your voice heard by the people you can vote for.

Joel Blackwell of Sacramento is the author of “Keep On Voting After The Election: How Ordinary People Get What They Want From Government.”

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