people in the voting booth

Beyond the Candidates: Ballot Measures

It’s election day. When you wake up, you see the reminder you set for yourself (nice job!). You stroll in to the polling place all smug, pick the candidates you studied up on and then–the ballot issues.

Shit.

You read the first two lines of the measure and skim the rest after realizing there’s no way you’re going to understand this well enough from the text on the ballot alone (you’re correct).

You leave it empty. Or, go with the party ballot the nice lady in the parking lot handed your overconfident ass on the way in. You make sure you get your sticker but you walk out wondering what you just did. Or so they say, I’m… recalling for a friend.

But ballot measures shouldn’t be forgotten. They cover important issues in your community: drug policy, abortion, taxes, healthcare, rules for future elections, and more.

If you give yourself the time to do a little research, you can earn that sticker for a real one. Go to this list of Ballot Measures by State and get familiar with the issues you’ll see on your ballot in November. Then, check out your county board of elections website for something like this list of certified ballot issues.

Then, find strong sources and learn about their takes. Sometimes the impact of a proposed policy changes is speculative, but there are data you can reference, legislative precedents, and experts who study this stuff for a living. If you aren’t sure where to start, ask a friend you trust for sources to read up, using those media literacy skills we covered in our very first sustainable steps! When ballot issues are complicated we are more vulnerable to misinformation.

It’s worth 15 minutes of your day to get acquainted with these issues–they made it to the ballot because they will impact you and your neighbors.

 

image: Sam Kalda

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Brush Up on Civics 101

I went canvassing recently to survey people about their thoughts on the latest Supreme Court nomination… and no one was familiar.

Sometimes when I ask people close to me about voting they tell me they don’t feel informed enough to participate.

We learn the basics in school, but to be real I was better at pneumonic devices than actually absorbing knowledge from my K12 government lessons, and by the time I got to grad school I needed a refresher. I know I’m not the only one. For one, my professor begrudgingly delivered several such refreshers in her 5000 level health policy class. But besides my anecdotes, there is plenty of evidence that we are slacking in civics know-how:

It’s intimidating to be put on the spot without confidence that you know your stuff–but we shouldn’t let shame or pride get in the way of getting back to basics so we can reinforce the foundation necessary to engage in our communities and in civic life.

Here are some resources to consider for yourself or share with someone else:

Short Videos

Of course, there’s a TED series for that. Specifically TED-Ed’s Government Declassified videos. These shorts cover big events through history, an intro to the United States Federal Reserve, and dozens of other civics lessons. 🏆 Most are animated but there are a few with people talking to a web cam or delivering the classic TED monologue from that infamous red dot carpet.

The TED series has some info-tainment mixed in (e.g. Black Friday: an accident of history). Indiana University’s Center on Representative Government has a collection of ~1 minute videos called Facts of Congress of more educationally focused topics like “Committees” “Key Congressional Leaders” and “House and Senate”. They speak to younger viewers but IMO are not annoying for grown folks to watch.

They do have one on How a Bill Becomes a Law but we all know it could never hold a candle to Schoolhouse Rock’s:

Open Courses

Harvard offers free, self paced courses on U.S. Government on the edX platform. You can take a course or complete the entire series:

  • American Government: Constitutional Foundations
  • U.S. Political Institutions: Congress, Presidency, Courts, and Bureaucracy
  • Citizen Politics in America: Public Opinion, Elections, Interest Groups, and the Media
  • U.S. Public Policy: Social, Economic, and Foreign Policies

You’ll see prices listed for the program or individual courses but that’s completely optional, for if you want the verification for completing the coursework.

 

Knowledge is power, and there’s no shame in getting back to basics. Play a video when you’re doing the dishes or brushing your teeth, or complete an open course over coffee on the weekends. Bonus points if you replace these exercises with a less healthy habit like mindlessly scrolling through Instagram! Get a refresher in Civics 101 and have the confidence you need to go out and engage with your neighbors, your friends and your elected officials.

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Using Tech for Good

706EDFC6-4C31-4F7A-9F9D-60DEDF06085A.jpegIt can be hard to keep up with the issues close to us. At the same time, it’s unsustainable to expect to know comprehensively all of the votes, proposals and cases you want to keep an eye on.

Using technology for civic engagement is kind of like using technology to socialize. It’s convenient, it keeps you in-the-know in real time, and a lot of it is BS so you shouldn’t rely on tech exclusively for this aspect of your life. I’ve talked a lot about media literacy in older posts and all of those rules apply here. With that in mind, here is a list couple of tools you can use to rely on someone else to put the most relevant stuff in front of you in a consumable and timely manner.

  1. Countable – for being generally informed
    Countable is an app that keeps you up to date with bills on the Congressional agenda. It seems dedicated to creating a space for unbiased discourse. When you select a bill you see an objective summary, and then you can scan the comments For and Against. They use reddit-style up votes to make it easy to find the strongest arguments, instead of having to sleuth through low-blows and poorly written rants to get to the comments that actually open your perspectives up a bit.Still, in the interest of sustainability you might just want to stick to the platform’s content to inform yourself and skip the comment section if you’re not in the mood for tea. Or perhaps a compromise is to just read the top ones? It’s a slippery slope, I’ll admit.The app is marketed as a kind of polling tool, where you can vote Yea or Nay and the results will be shared with your reps. I’m not sure how responsive legislators are to these metrics, though. I’d be interested to find out!
  2. GovTrack – to subscribe to specific issues/areas
    This tool helps you keep track of political activity that aligns with issues you want to be particularly tuned into. It sends email updates based on political activities you subscribe to. You can track specific members of congress, bills, votes, committees, and ‘subjects’ like health or even subcategories that get real granular such as ‘allergies’. How cool is that?
  3. Oh wait.
    The tech tools I’m familiar with lean partisan. I’m committed to writing these posts for everyone so I’ll avoid those. But I’m sure conservative and liberal users can sign up for SMS action updates through special interest groups that align with their values, online communities (have your media literacy toolbelt handy for these!) and more.

Can I really call this a list if there are only two items? Help! What tech resources do you use to keep up with the most important things?

 

A final note on using tech for good: be a picky subscriber. Too many sign ups and you’ll be overwhelmed and tuning entirely out in no time. This is a challenge for me but I know we can do this together! Happy nerding.

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