Want to do more to make your views known? Here are some ways to take advantage of the channels for civic and political participation, how they work, and why it matters beyond the City of Oakland.

You have representation at the state level, with your State Assembly Rep and State Senator. Districts and legislators can be found here. Of course, there’s always the Governor’s Office. He’s a busy guy, but he’s your busy guy.

At the national level, you have a representative in the House of Representatives, and here are our Senators. Can you write to the President or call the White House, too? You bet. Again: busy guy. Sometimes it’s easier to get the ear of someone more local, but you have every right to drop the President a line, and the communications that get picked up in speeches and public statements do come from the larger country.

Why your contact with officials has an impact 

Many state- and national-level offices, as well as some more local ones, “weigh” different kinds of communication differently. An email may be counted as a single constituent’s opinion, but a phone call will sometimes count for as much as 3 – 5 constituents’ worth, and an actual snail-mail letter can be counted as representing up to 10, or sometimes even more.

There’s more to it than that, though. The most important reason to keep in contact with your representatives is to inform their impressions of what their constituents want. They represent a lot of people with varying priorities, values and ideas. How do they know what their constituents are thinking and how they want them to vote? From those constituents who tell them. That’s the best information they get–so make sure some of that information is yours, and don’t stop at just one contact. Stay in touch.

Also, keep in mind that, as a resident of the most populous state, with a whopping 55 electoral votes, folks in national political office–and especially those who aspire to be–are interested in what you’re thinking and how you’re voting. What California does politically—and therefore, what Californians are concerned about—matters a lot at the national level.

Voting is a lot more important here in Oakland than most of us think

The importance of voting cannot be stressed enough, and it is a seriously underutilized source of political potency around here.

Voter registration for the State of California hovers around 75% of eligible adults, and even in the historic 2008 election, less than 60% of those turned out to vote.

That’s less than half of the voting-eligible population. Do election outcomes really reflect the will of the people at that rate? Maybe. Who’s voting?

California is one of those states where “minorities,” (Latino, African American, Asian, Native American) together make up a majority of the population. However, voter registration rates are lowest in those counties that are the most diverse.

Furthermore, 9 out of the 10 counties in California with the lowest voter registration are those where a majority of the populace identifies as “non-white.” This suggests that even in parts of the state where “minorities” are a much higher proportion of the population than whites, their views still end up under-represented in elections–not by design, but because the “minority” majority isn’t voting as much.

Wait, it gets weirder. Convicted felons and parolees are not eligible to vote. With California’s “three strikes” rule, record numbers of Californians are incarcerated. Monitoring Civic and Political Participation in California further points out, “California’s heavy burden of incarceration does not weigh evenly on the communities that make up the state’s population. Statistics suggest that the incarceration rate for African Americans is over 6.5 times the rate among whites. Therefore, political disenfranchisement due to felony convictions is having much more of an impact on this community than it is on other Californians.”

That makes it all that much more important for eligible voters to register and vote. This is a huge untapped source of political power, and one that can be tapped very easily. You don’t have to march in the rain with a sign, you don’t have to write letters or confront public officials, you don’t have to risk anything at all–in fact, the only risk is not voting and letting things continue as they have been.

Register here!

In essence, deciding “my vote doesn’t count,” and not using it, literally makes that true: the uncast vote will never be counted. Consider what would happen, though, if all those “minority” voters—who make up a majority of Oakland’s potential electorate—went to the polls and voted about what was important to them. Even another 10% turnout would be enough to decide a lot of close calls in favor of what the majority of people here actually want.

Voting is a lot more important at the national level than most of us think

It’s even bigger than that, though. Politicians cater to those they think they can get to vote for them, and give them reasons to do so. A group of people that is known not to vote much doesn’t get catered to, while groups that do vote get to set the political agenda by being catered to.

Consider, for example, senior citizens. They vote in droves, and that population is large and growing as Americans live longer, and as the Baby Boom generation reaches retirement age. That’s why Social Security and Medicare are hot topics: that’s what that sizeable and frequently-voting group wants to see protected, legislatively speaking. It affects them directly. Their very high likelihood of voting puts their concerns on the national agenda.

Groups need not be expected to vote a certain way to set the national agenda, either. It’s not likely immigration would be on the national agenda if both Democrats and Republicans weren’t battling hard for the votes of recent immigrants.

Imagine what we could get on the national agenda—or even the state or local one—if Oakland voters were known to be active voters. Your vote, and those of your neighbors, friends and family, have the power to set the political agenda.

Get everyone you know in Alameda County to register here!

There are other ways to make sure your voice is heard, too. One big example is that California is a state where citizen-initiated ballot measures can pass new legislation and annul existing laws. That means that if you and enough of your fellow citizens think “there ought to be a law,” you can make that happen. You don’t need a legislator to sponsor it, as is the case in many other states. Here are the specifics of how to do that.

See part one of this series here.

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