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.


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


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.


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.


Party with a Purpose

I’m a firm believer that if you clean your bathroom without making it a dance party, you’re doing it wrong.

Getting and staying involved is work, but combining your civic engagement with things you already wanted to do is one way to achieve sustainability.

My mentor almost exclusively partied with purpose. When she wanted to record kazoo covers, she threw an album launch party and sold the CDs for the literacy council.

Pro tip: Her cause also helped convince her homies to provide free recording and graphic design support to make the album happen.

Make your own party with a purpose: if you prefer dirt over dancing you can sign up with a community garden. If you like to run, find races that fundraise for causes you connect with. If you prefer parties for one you can use your hobbies for good.

Sometimes the opportunity to do what you love isn’t available as a pre-packaged “see you Saturday at noon” kind of volunteer shift. And that’s OK–make your engagement authentically yours.

With all due respect, no one would have ever asked Patty to create a kazoo album for their cause. Don’t be discouraged if the path isn’t obvious. Plug into communities with similar goals and you can make it happen.

Sometimes this means mixing in the less glamorous work that’s necessary to make those communities run–but we’re playing the long game here. And the reward at the finish line is an engagement opportunity you can look forward to. Getting involved shouldn’t always feel like adding another chore to your list.

Happy partying!


feature image 📸: Andrew Knechel


Give Positive Feedback

For many of us, complaining comes easy. Maybe too easy. When we feel we’ve been wronged we’re more motivated to take action, compared to instances where our expectations were met.

Sometimes I imaging that doing intake for constituent letters to representatives is something like Yelp, where half the participants are the ones who are there for catharsis or seem to have had unrealistic expectations in the first place.

At a lobbying event I attended last year I heard an aide for Congresswoman Barbara Lee speak on this topic. Lee’s legislative assistant M. A Keifer said messages from constituents who support the Congresswoman’s work are important to gauge passion on the issues. When you like what your rep is doing, you don’t want the critics to be the only voices they hear. Provide a more balanced experience for your officials by saying Thanks when they actually represent you.

It takes practice to express gratitude in other spaces, but the same benefits apply here. Take 5 minutes to Thank a rep–and read this article on writing your representatives if you’re looking to maximize your impact.

sign for polling place

Make a Voting Plan

Ohio’s primary elections are Tuesday! Take 5 minutes to make a plan for casting your ballot. Ask yourself these questions:

When are you voting?

Early voting is still an option if May 8 isn’t a good day for you.

For future reference: you can also vote from home! But the deadline to request an absentee ballot is three days before the election in which you want to vote, so I’m late to the party on this info, for this Ohio election.

If you’re voting on election day, Ohio polls are open 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Where are you voting?

This depends on whether you’re voting early or on election day.

How are you getting there?

Your polling place is probably in biking distance if not walking. Get some movement in and make the errand extra enjoyable.

Is everyone on the same page?

Could you and your roommate will go together? Accountability buddies aren’t just work workouts. Is childcare arranged? You can take your kids to the polling places, so maybe someone just needs as heads up that they’ll be late. Check your office calendar to be sure you have plenty of time to get back to work in case of a line.

How will you vote?

The copy on the ballot is often not enough context to make an informed decision. Check out a sample ballot and do some research so you don’t show up and play eenie-meenie-miney-mo.


All of the info you need to make your game plan for the Ohio Primaries is at

If you’re not in Ohio, a google search will get you there. The Secretary of State’s website should also be your starting place.


Happy voting!