Thursday, October 30, 2014

Get Out the Vote!...and then keep in touch

"Vote Obama out of office."

Sitting in a back room waiting for my daughter to finish up a lesson, I had a conversation I'd rather not have had. It was important, but sometimes I'm just not in the mood. It started out well enough with a father politely asking what I do. I told him that I am a writer and a volunteer lobbyist on global health issues. Knowing the words "volunteer" and "lobbyist" don't usually go together, he asked for more detail about what I do. I told him something like, "I contact members of Congress about actions they can take to fight diseases like AIDS or polio and teach other everyday citizens to do that as well." In our conversation, he seemed to not really know what I was getting at, so I eventually asked the question for illustration..."So, if you have something you want to change about what our country is doing, what do you do about it?"

"Vote Obama out of office."

Oh, brilliant. Where do I start with this man who was telling this to me with a straight face right beside his teenage son who will be voting in just a few years? Let's break down the ridiculousness of that comment into three categories.

  1. Obama's not up for re-election in 2014. There is no presidential election this year nor can anyone have three terms. No matter how you feel about President Obama, you have to get over this point. 
  2. The president is not the only one who has influence. For instance, the administration can make budget recommendations, but only Congress can approve the actual spending of money.
  3. Election day is not the only day when you have a voice in government. 

The idea that you can only affect what our government does once every 4 years is a naive and antiquated notion. 
Every single day is an opportunity to shape U.S. policies whether it be through tweeting, blogging, writing letters to the editor, calling members of Congress, writing handwritten letters to Congress, or meeting face-to-face in Congressional offices. All of these actions are open to us. It is our right as citizens and, hey, even if you're not a citizen you can still use Twitter to organize. I was frustrated by this man's attitude, but not really surprised by it. We're taught about elections in high school American government class, but no one ever explains to us how we can influence government as citizens post-election. 

Fellow RESULTS volunteer Richard Smiley and I chatting
 with Senator  Durbin (on right) about global poverty
TV news - or any news, really - would lead anyone to think that voting or contributing large amounts of money are the only things that citizens can do. Since so many people don't know what kinds of effective actions they can personally take, most people end up just frustrated and giving up on our system without ever truly being a part of it. Because of this huge gap between most citizens and government, there is a space for concerned citizen lobbyists to slide right in and have great impact. Just a modest amount of 10-20 phone calls on a topic can sometimes greatly influence a member of Congress because few people really bother to do it. It can have a great effect, especially if it's an important yet little known issue. A constituent meeting face-to-face with congressional staff or an actual member of Congress is even rarer and makes even more impact.

I tried to make these points to the dad in the waiting room in a polite and courteous way. Honestly, I don't think I had that much of an effect on him and I didn't really expect to. His son, on the other hand, was listening to every word and asking questions. And maybe that's who I was really talking to. The son is the reason to have the conversation I didn't feel like having. Because the kids of today are the voters of tomorrow who will help to decide their future and mine. I want that boy and my children to vote with optimism and care...and not stop at the voting booth. That's the same thing I want from you.
US Rep. Jan Schakowksy reads a letter from my children
about global child survival.

So, get out and vote, to be sure! That's where an engaged citizen starts. But don't stop there. Let your elected officials know what you want after they're in office even if - especially if - they are not of the party you favor. They still represent you and it is your right and privilege to contact them on the issues that are important to you. Don't waste it!

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