Also published on The Huffington Post
The dominant mood at Netroots Nation a couple of weeks ago? Determination — the activists, bloggers and campaign staff who attended were united in the desire to help Democrats win as many races as possible this November.
Much of the discussion centered on campaigns for the U.S. House and Senate, but state races came up constantly as well, and for good reason: the state legislators and governors elected in three short months will oversee the single most important political act in our system of government, the redrawing of state and congressional district lines based on the results of the census. State races matter in 2010, so if you really want to make a difference in national politics this year, start locally. And the best part is, the smaller the race, the bigger the effect you can have as an individual activist or donor.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
Legislative lines are power, pure and simple, since redrawing a district might open a door to Congress for one politician but knock another out of office in the process. The result? Draw district lines right, and you can swing the balance for years to come. By pushing his allies in Austin to re-redistrict in 2003, for instance, Tom DeLay managed to build a 21-11 Republican majority in the Texas congressional delegation in ’04, even though the state’s overall vote was only 55% Republican that year. Legislative sausage-making at its finest! And with several state legislatures (including the Texas House) balanced on a partisan edge in 2010, a relatively few and obscure races may settle the fate of any number of congressmembers in the years to come.
A Question of Scale
Roughly 7000 state legislators will be elected this year, compared with 435 congressmembers and 33 senators. Smaller districts make for less all around — less money in the bank, fewer volunteers, smaller and/or less-experienced staffs. Legislative candidates can really USE your help (and your money), particularly if you have substantive skills or personal connections that you can put to work on their behalf. With no presidential candidates on the ballot, 2010 turnout is likely to be even lower than average, meaning that many legislative races will turn on the decisions of a handful of voters. So even if all you can do is to get a few friends to show up at the polls, their presence may be decisive.
The Value of Word of Mouth
With so many races going on, the biggest problem facing candidates for the state house generally is getting noticed at all — national media certainly aren’t covering them, and the slow decline of local news outlets doesn’t leave much room in traditional public spaces. But fortunately for us, the internet and citizen activism give campaigns access to an entire ecosystem of alternative media to get their messages out.
And since most of us make voting decisions based on what we hear from people around us, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and emails to friends and family all help to spread the word through channels people actually trust. When you set out to do politics over the internet (or in person), you’re most likely going to see the best results when you work through the connections you already have. The more people you know, the more widely your words can ripple.
Where to Begin
So when you’re starting out in online politics, begin with the tools you already use — email if you’re an emailer, Facebook posts if you’re a social networker, Twitter if you’re a twitterer, online video if you’re a YouTube enthusiast, Second Life if you lack a first one (just kidding). From there, you can branch out. Look for communities of like-minded people, for instance on state- or city-focused blogs that may be hungry for content. What about community listservs? Don’t forget letters to the editor, since small-town papers are the original hyper-local media and most have at least some online presence.
But though you’re reading this article online, the internet is still only one part of the political communications landscape. Your work in the real world may turn out to be much more important, so think about the times and places to connect with people in person. Your church, your workplace, the local bar, that strip club you frequent — all of them are potential places to spread the word, though naturally you want to be careful not to alienate folks in the process.
And of course, donate to and volunteer for candidates you support, since local campaigns in particular are likely to need the money and the time and be able to put it to good use. But when you give to a campaign, try to leverage the act as much as possible. Post a note about your donation to Facebook, email your friends and family about it, Tweet about it, etc — each of your online spaces is the equivalent of a front yard, so think about ways to fill it with yard signs. Don’t let people encounter you online without also encountering a link to your favorite candidates’ ActBlue pages.
Start That Avalanche
As ugly as the redistricting process can be, this is one year in which the reality of democracy meshes with its rhetoric — an individual voter/donor/activist CAN make a difference, and one with the potential to echo through the halls of power for at least a decade to come. Think of yourself as the one tiny pebble that slips and starts a huge avalanche…so get rolling.