local democracy and becoming an informed American citizen

Unless you've been hiding under a rock, you know at least two of the
candidates running for President. You might even know the
Congresspeople running or if you have a Senator race this year. But do
you know who is running for city council, school board, state
legislature, or judge? If you have propositions, do you know what they
are? Do your friends? Sadly, for most Americans, the answer is a
profound no. This can be fixed.

Our democracy is most effective when we have an informed citizenry.
This does not just pertain to federal elections, but elections at all
levels. Often, the local elections are the most important. The judges
that you elect to superior court might be nominated for Supreme Court a
few years from now. The people you send to state legislature may be
running for federal office in no time. Who you help get experience at
the local level shapes what happens at the federal level in all sorts
of direct and indirect ways. Furthermore, it affects your life
directly.

Wading through information on local elections is undoubtedly a pain
in the ass. Sure, you're about to be inundated with pamphlets telling
you which way to vote and if your local newspaper is still functioning,
they will inevitably list who they want you to vote for. But is this
really what it means to be informed? I think not. Rather than waiting
to be told what to do, I vote that each and every one of you hosts a
party where you leverage the collective intelligence of those around
you.

Steps for throwing a ballot party:

  1. Find your local ballot and make a list of all items that
    you need to know something about. Make sure to include state
    legislature, county supervisors, city council, school board, judges,
    and all local and state propositions. Include anything unique to your
    area. And if it makes sense, include the federal races, although I
    usually skip those altogether.
  2. Invite your friends to your house for a ballot party...
    promise alcohol. Encourage them to indicate which items they'd prefer
    to research and to invite a friend or two.
  3. Assign all items on the ballot to attendees. Double up or
    assign multiple if necessary. Try to give people a mix of
    races/measures.
  4. Ask all attendees to research their assigned items. Encourage
    them to document the pros/cons, the people who are supporting and
    protesting each, any and all information they can find about the issues
    at hand.
  5. If it's your thing, buy a lot of alcohol. Wading though a hefty ballot can be better with alcohol and there's nothing like being tipsy
    while debating with friends. Finding a comedian also helps
    tremendously. This eases tension.
  6. When everyone is gathered, go through the ballot, item by
    item. Have the attendee(s) who researched it detail what they learned,
    what they couldn't find, and what their impression is based on their
    research. Discuss. Document the discussion.
  7. After the party, put together a "cheat sheet" from the night,
    listing each element, the key issues, and the collective consensus. I
    usually use YES, yes, mixed, no, NO and make a special note if case
    statements are necessary [e.g., if (pro_bond_measures) YES;]. Send this
    document to all of your friends who attended and those who didn't. At
    the top of the sheet, indicate the election day and last day for
    registering in your community. If you're a geek, put this up on a wiki
    and share it with everyone in your local area.
  8. The day before the last day of registration, call up all of
    your friends to confirm that they've registered. If not, volunteer to
    drive them to where they can register.
  9. The night before the election, resend the list to everyone and encourage them to vote.

I've thrown ballot parties for years now. Not only does this result
in a fun excuse for a party, but it's also an ideal way to make sure
everyone knows what the hell they're voting for. Even if you and your
friends don't agree, at least an informed decision is being made. This
also results in network effects. Your vote might not shape an election,
but if you get 30 of your friends to vote one way through information
and they get 30 of their friends, ... well, that changes the results
quite quickly, especially for local elections where decisions are often
made based on hundreds or tens of votes.

Many of us (self included) are actively working to become global
citizens. Often, this means that we know more about what's going on in
Darfur or Georgia than we do about what decisions are being made at our
school board. Don't get me wrong - being a global citizen is really important.  Yet, while local politics may feel unimportant in comparison to
world crises,  the decisions made at a local decision affect your life in so many ways. Who fixes your potholes? How does your trash
disappear? How are your hospitals structured? Who makes sure you have
water, power, and gas? We always bitch and moan about the state of the
union, but too often, we forget about the importance of local
communities. They matter. And being an informed citizen really matters.
Democracy isn't about presidential races. It's about engaging in civics
at all levels to make society a better place.  It's about knowing who's running, what they stand for, and how they will make your community a better place.

Please, I beg you, get informed and vote.
This election isn't just about Obama and McCain and you shouldn't think
that you're relieved of civic duty because your state is not a swing
state. Sure, your vote might not matter when it comes to the
presidential race, but it definitely matters when it comes to local
elections. The vast majority are decided by very small margins and if
you engage and encourage others to engage, you have the power to shape
those. Throw a ballot party, spam your friends, hell, drive them to the
bloody polls. Just get involved. Our democracy depends on it.

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