Start with voting. Oklahoma has among the lowest rates of voter registration and voter turnout in the nation. In 2014, less than one in three eligible voters cast a ballot for Governor and other statewide races. Turnout for primary elections and for local races is even lower. It is far harder to keep elected officials responsive and accountable if they know that few of their constituents will even bother to vote.
- The State Election Board website provides information on the dates of elections, where to vote, how to register and request absentee ballots. You can also find the list of candidates running for office and view sample ballots. The website posts historical election result information going back several decades.
Effective democracy requires more than voting. An election is a good way to make your voice heard, but not the best way to let elected officials know exactly what you expect of them. Our system of representative democracy provides numerous ways to get involved and advocate for issues that are important to you. Sadly, this system often favors those who are well off and have something specific to gain from government. Only if the rest of us get involved will we have the hope of getting government policy that helps the many instead of the few.
The good news is that often if an elected official hears from just a few constituents on an issue, it can make a real difference. Here are a few easy steps to be an active citizen:
- Become informed on how things work. Our Legislative Primer, updated annually, lays out the major players and main steps in the process. The primer can be downloaded or viewed online.
- Follow the A detailed financial plan for a fiscal year or other period. It specifies sources of... and legislative process. News media provide coverage of some major policy issues and often provide brief reports on major steps in the budget process. Subscribing to OK Policy’s In the Know is the easiest way to stay informed of all the top news stories. You can find out even more through direct access to the Legislature itself. Both houses have online media centers summarizing recent actions. You can access them at House media page and Senate Communications Division. Click here to see the Governor’s press releases. You can also find and track bills being considered by the legislature at the Oklahoma State Legislature’s legislation page. You can sign up for email or text alerts on specific bills of interest to you through LENS, the Legislative Electronic Notification System. The more you know about what is happening, the more able you are to influence decisions before they are final.
- Contact your legislators and the Governor. You can use this tool to identify your legislators and get their contact information. You can contact your representatives in several ways. Phone them through the main switchboards at 1-800-865-6490 for the State Senate and 1-800-522-8502 for the State House of Representatives. You can also access direct phone numbers and e-mail addresses for all Senators and Representatives, and Governor’s office. Most legislators are now on Twitter and Facebook, and tweeting at them or sending them a message on Facebook can be an effective way of getting their attention (here’s a list of legislators’ social media pages from the Oklahoma Education Association). Even better than an email, phone call or a tweet are face-to-face visits with legislators at the Capitol or back home in their districts; you can usually set up an appointment by calling their office and speaking to their Legislative Assistant (LA). On issues of importance to you, you may want to reach out to your own Representative and Senator, the House and Senate authors of legislation addressing your issue, and the Chair and other members of committees that will vote on the legislation.
When you speak with legislators or the Governor’s staff, let them know what you are interested in, what your issue means to you, and what you are looking to them to do. Don’t hesitate to contact your representatives more than once, particularly when important votes are coming up. The Together Oklahoma website has lots of helpful advocacy tips for getting your legislators’ attention and communicating with them effectively.
- Work with the agencies that provide services that are important to you. Customer contact is important to agencies in setting budgets and policies. It helps them determine whether their services are working and whether there is demand for more or better services. They can share with you their current issues and strategies. By meeting agency officials you will develop a direct connection that makes services more effective and makes your voice heard in the agency and with the legislature.
- Write letters to the editor. Letters help raise the profile of issues that are important to you and they let your fellow citizens know you expect more from our government. Since the letters are read carefully by legislators, political leaders, and interest groups, this is a good way to have an impact on the legislative process.
- Work with others who share your views. There are a lot of people working at the Capitol and in local communities to have their voices heard. Voices get louder when they work together, and finding others with expertise on your issue and experience with the legislative process will help you understand how things work and how you can be more effective. If you are interested in working with others to promote fair and adequate funding of public services, please be in touch with Together Oklahoma, OK Policy’s grassroots advocacy coalition. You can join the TOK email list or look into joining one of our local chapters. Whatever your main area of concern, there may be like-minded
Don’t be shy about sharing your views with friends, family, coworkers, interest groups, newspapers and your elected officials. No matter what, don’t give up. Eventually, those who work hard and have good arguments succeed.