Petitioning can be a good way to advocate for policy change.
Despite popular belief, the average person can change a law.
In the wake of last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., many citizens have expressed a desire to see certain laws changed, whether they pertain to gun control or mental health care. But as noted on Bloomberg.com and in many other publications, many Americans feel powerless.
And in the case of changing gun laws, they see it as a “hopeless crusade.”
However, as political experts point out, there are numerous ways in which you can make your voice heard in policy discussions. Below, four professors weigh in on some of the most effective strategies:
Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics director and Rider University political science professor Ben Dworkin said he believes this is a good way to advocate for policy change.
“People have a constitutional right — and obligation — to petition the government for change,” he said.
University of Delaware communications professor Lindsay Hoffman agrees. She adds that under the Obama administration this process is easier than ever. A person can create or sign a petition on the government’s “We the People” website, and if it receives a certain number of signatures, the government is required to respond.
But Dworkin warned: “It can’t end with the online petition or letter. It needs to be an ongoing process.”
You could also try going door to door. Professor and chair of Rice University’s political science department Mark Jones highlights that about half the states — including all those on the West Coast — have the Initiative Process.
This tactic involves collecting signatures from voters in the state for a piece of legislation. If a certain number of people sign the petition, then the state will have the option of voting for the new piece of legislation on a ballot.
It has its benefits. “One potential that Initiative Process has is that it’s easier to circumvent lobbyists and get around things getting buried in the legislative process,” he said.
But Jones suggested that, to avoid opposition, you should aim to get more than the required number of signatures, in case an address turns out to be incorrect or some of the signatures don’t belong to registered voters.
• Write to your representative
Writing a letter to your representative is still an effective way to make your voice heard, Hoffman said.
“It’s the old-fashioned way,” she said. “Call them, write a letter, email, Facebook and pass along to family and friends.”
One modern twist that could make this process more effective is that representatives are going digital. Hoffman explained that being able to digitally categorize these letters will make it easier for representatives to see trends and respond.
But there are some ways of contacting your representative that some experts agree are better than others. Hoffman suggested writing about personal stories.
“Most of what we’re hearing is stories about the individuals who are lost. That’s how most people are trying to understand this,” she said.
• Come together
Dworkin recommended getting together groups of 10, 20 or even 50 voters from the district and scheduling a meeting with the representative.
“Money makes more of a difference when no one’s voting,” he said. “But you can trump money if you organize.”
“You need to get into an elected official’s space to let them know what you think,” he added.
Princeton University political science professor Paul Frymer also recommended “getting creative,” emphasizing that college students have a legacy of staging successful rallies, public assemblies, vigils and sit-ins. He names the anti-sweatshop movement as an example.
“Students lobbied universities and had protests in front of stores,” he explained. “Schools responded by banning certain brands from their stores, and big companies like Nike started paying attention.”
Frymer also said the Civil Rights movement was largely a product of student-driven sit-ins.
If protests aren’t your style, Frymer said you can also try producing a documentary, doing an email-based movement and getting the media’s attention.
Jones said lobbying can be a successful way to change a piece of legislation. He stressed that primary voters have a greater weight because they can sway the election more for candidates.
Lobbying is usually done as a grassroots campaign and involves a number of people — from the same district and who share the same vision — contacting their representatives.
“Work together with other people,” he recommended. “The more it’s seen as an integrated group effort, the better. Then you’re demonstrating interest and enthusiasm.”
And if you can write checks, that’ll also have a large impact, he added. But the bottom line is if you choose to take this route, opt for personal emails and phone calls.
“The more it costs for you, the stronger the reaction from representatives,” he said. “So retweeting does little.”
Either way, both he and Dworkin emphasized the importance of researching your representatives and understanding where the different parties stand on an issue.
“The most important thing the average person needs to do is to learn about the voting records of officials and research what they’re asking them to do,” Dworkin said.
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