Lily Herman is a New York-based writer and editor. All opinions are her own.
Ever since Donald Trump was elected and Republicans kept their majorities in the House and the Senate, the phrase “call your representatives!” has become part of the political psyche. When members of the House of Representatives and the Senate were threatening to repeal Obamacare and replace it with wildly destructive alternatives, there were messages everywhere to call your reps. There was similar rhetoric around getting representatives on the line to have them come out against Donald Trump’s refugee ban and to do something about his U.S.-Mexico border wall.
While a lot of this talk of calling federal representatives is well-intentioned, often people miss out on a whole other part of the political process: interacting with local and state representatives.
In the American political system, it’s easy to want to focus on the people highest on the totem pole, thinking that a top-down approach will make change through ripple effects across the country. After all, federal law supersedes any local or state laws, so why not start there? But the truth of the matter is that what happens in these localized governments actually has a bigger impact on our daily lives — and a lot of the decisions made at the state or local level actually inform the decisions your reps make federally.
To make matters worse, most people in this country aren’t even doing their civic duty to vote for their local and state reps. The U.S. already has low national voter turnout, with only about 55.7 % of the voting-age population turning out to the polls for presidential elections, but in contrast, only between 13 % and 20 to 25 % of Americans vote in local elections. That bears repeating: In the best of circumstances, only somewhere between one in four and one in five Americans are voting for the people who have the greatest effect on their everyday lives.
In case you’re not hitting the panic button, what sort of havoc have local and state Republican representatives wreaked closer to home? Let us count the ways. Take abortion, for example. Representatives in the state of Ohio first proposed a bill banning abortions after six weeks of gestation called the “heartbeat bill.” While Governor John Kasich vetoed that bill (but enacted a ban on abortion after 20 weeks), less than a month later, U.S. Representative Steve King introduced legislation similar to the Ohio heartbeat bill in Congress. Think it was a coincidence? Absolutely not; state legislation usually acts as a gut check for how Americans feel about certain issues that federal legislators take into consideration.
There are plenty of other fights happening at the state level that we could see popping up at the federal level if we don’t act quickly. Some of the troubling bills on the horizon at the state level include (but certainly aren’t limited to):
- Republicans in 20 state legislatures have introduced bills to curb the rights of Americans to protest and assemble, no doubt in response to heightened political engagement from disenchanted liberal voters.
- Conservative representatives in several states, including Georgia, have continued gerrymandering districts to lean in their favor, so much so that Vox reported that Democrats could win 54% of the congressional vote in 2018 but only get 47% of seats.
- The State Board of Education in Texas is also working to change wording in public school textbooks so that there are challenges to the theory of evolution.
But while this news sounds dismal at best, there is in fact a silver lining: Local and state legislators may be the ones leading the country away from more progressive policies, but they’re also the people who can turn the tables and lead us towards a much more liberal and equal future. For instance, representatives in Oregon passed a bill that would require insurers to cover people getting birth control or an abortion, and it was signed into law by the state’s governor. Maryland legislators worked with the governor to enact a bill to cover Planned Parenthood funds in the state if the federal government ever stopped providing them. Illinois just became the tenth state to allow automatic voter registration and the second one with Republican leadership (after Georgia) to do so. Most famously, back in 2014, the city of Seattle, Washington passed a $15 minimum wage, an effort that other cities and states are trying to replicate today.
My point? A lot of politics is local. And while it may take more effort to go to city council or state assembly meetings and demand your rights in person to your reps, it’s what we need to be focusing on in addition to going after our legislators at the top of government. Grassroots organizing is making a comeback in this political era, and that starts on the local level. The next time someone says you need to call your representatives or head out to the polls, add an asterisk: that means for federal, state, and local reps.
Every single one of these people is elected to represent you, so don’t let them forget it. And if they do, send them a friendly reminder: Let them know you’ll happily vote them out come Election Day.
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