Two Minutes for a Healthier Democracy

Yellow rotary phone on a yellow background
Photo by Mike Meyers / Unsplash

A few months ago, I was out for a walk with a buddy of mine who's a State Representative.

We were talking shop and I asked him how many phone calls he got from constituents on issues.

He represents about 9,000 folks, not exactly small potatoes here in Maine; it's some 0.6% of the state population. Comparatively, members of the U.S. House of Representatives each represent roughly 0.2% of the U.S. population.

I get almost none, he said.

Geez Louise, I thought. That's so much power being left on the table.

So throw a log on the fire, get yourself a warm mug of something good, and let's discuss why.

Congress passes a skinny 2% of bills, which means a whole lot of issues are hashed out in state legislatures, those laboratories of democracy. My buddy votes on gun control, reproductive rights, trans rights, affordable housing, emissions, criminal justice reform, everything but the kitchen sink. Knowing his district, I suspect that plenty of his constituents have opinions on these issues. (He is great on these issues, but alas, some of us may not be so well represented in our statehouses.)

So what's happening here? I think the good folks at Johns Hopkins put their finger on it: only 20% of Americans can name their state legislators.

If you're one of the 80% who couldn't pick your state legislators out of a lineup, be gentle with yourself. We aren't really taught that state legislatures matter.

A friendly note: legislatures are legislative bodies, legislators are the politicians who populate them, legislation is what they vote on, and legislatorous is a word I just made up.

What we learn, whether explicitly or implicitly, is that Congress is the Top Banana and the other levels of government are kind of chump change.

But we few, we happy few, we know Congress is but one layer in a layer cake that is a skimpy sheet cake without state and local government. Let's call that layer cake Federalism a la Mode, shall we.

A quick and dirty definition of federalism is the division of power between federal and state governments. To dig in deeper, click here!

After the walk and talk with my State Rep buddy, I called a few other folks in the know.

A pal who's a State Senator in another state and represents about 3.1% of the state population said, If I get five calls on an issue, that's a big deal.

Another friend who works for a State Senator representing just under 3% of the state population said 10 phone calls could sway the boss's vote. Not necessarily on marquee issues, but plenty of issues that matter aren't grabbing headlines - crisis hotline funding, adoption policy, bike lanes, food waste, and much more.

Even if state legislators don't hear from many constituents, we can be sure they do hear from one group of people: lobbyists. Lobbyists aren't all bad, some represent truly winning causes. But policy shaped by lobbyists does not a healthy democracy make.

So here's a 2-minute first step towards a healthier democracy: learn who your state legislators are (click here to find out). Encourage pals to do the same - wow'em with that Congress passing 2% of bills figure!

I have my state legislators' numbers in my phone. You could even set up an alert for their names; you may end up with a whopping 3-4 email alerts per legislative session. For a very few of us, it may mean more emails, in which case we could probably follow our state reps in the news instead.

Perhaps learn not just your state legislators' names, but where they stand on issues you care about. And when one of those issues comes up, give them a jingle to share your opinion - you might be one of the first constituent calls they get. You might even be the call that sways their vote.

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