All too often, Americans choose not to participate in the political process, thinking their vote or contribution cannot possibly make a difference. The percentage of eligible voters who actually vote on Election Day is disappointingly low. According to the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. agency charged with monitoring the financing of federal elections, only 67.5% of registered voters cast a ballot in the 2000 elections. Even worse, of the approximately 205 million individuals over the age of eighteen who could have conceivably voted in 2000, only 51.3% cast a ballot. The Federal Election Commission included in its study some individuals over the age of eighteen who were not eligible to vote, but the numbers are still striking.
The same goes for other forms of political participation, too: volunteering with a campaign, writing letters to elected officials, making a financial contribution. As with voting, many individuals view these activities as overly time-consuming or believe that one person alone can accomplish little.
But what about the people who are striving to win those votes and volunteers? Do they think individuals matter? The Arab American Institute spoke with four candidates for elected office about their experiences with individual constituents and volunteers. Two of the candidates are running for reelection, while the other two are running for the first time.
Take Justin Nadeau, for example, an aspiring Democratic congressperson from New Hampshire’s 1st district. A month and a half after he declared his candidacy, Nadeau was on his way to a speaking engagement at a local community center when he ran into terrible traffic. By the time he finally arrived at the center, all but two of the seventy-one people originally in attendance had left. After chatting with the remaining two, Nadeau headed back to his office and got down to some serious business: he wrote –” by hand –” a letter of apology to each individual who had come to hear him speak and made certain that the letters were hand-delivered to the appropriate homes. Why? Because he wanted to demonstrate to these members of his district that they were important to him.
Nadeau isn’t the only candidate who takes the members of his district extremely seriously. All four of the interviewees remarked time and again that they pay careful attention to the opinions of their constituents. While their response was far from surprising –” what elected official, after all, would publicly admit to ignoring constituents –” they made some powerful arguments for the importance of the individual voter and volunteer.
Let’s start with voting. Michael Bouchard, the Republican sheriff of Oakland County, Michigan, a district of over one million citizens, believes so strongly in the power of each and every ballot that he makes a habit of distributing handouts to local schoolchildren detailing ten instances in which a single vote has swayed an entire election.
Barbara Farrah, a Democratic representative to Michigan’s state legislature, agreed with Bouchard that one vote can prove pivotal, especially in state or local elections that are often decided by relatively small margins. She added, though, that voting is also about “empowerment” and voicing one’s opinion. “It’s part of being an American,” Farrah said. “That’s how we elect our government. Our whole country is based on that, being represented by the people.”
While Election Day ultimately determines the political fortunes of candidates like Farrah and Bouchard, the months leading up to an election –” campaign season –” are no less critical. If a candidate expects to have any shot at winning his race, he must, with little exception, run an energetic, organized campaign. And what is a campaign without volunteers?
According to our four candidates, not much. volunteers perform all sorts of activities that form the nuts and bolts of a campaign. They stuff envelopes and make phone calls, post yard signs and canvass neighborhoods. These tasks might be relatively unglamorous, but they’re certainly not unimportant. Farrah said of stuffing envelopes, “That’s such a huge thing…It sounds like a mindless task, but it’s so important to get your information into the hands of voters and stuffing envelopes is the only way to do it.” She added that when it comes to campaigns, volunteers do “everything.”
Candidates are not the only ones to benefit from their volunteers’ work, though. Democrat George Ajjan, a citizen of New Jersey’s 8th district running for U.S. Congress, remarked that hard-working volunteers have a chance to impact the direction of his campaign. “When you work with someone, you come to respect their opinions. The issues affecting Arab Americans, in particular when it comes to the Middle East, are very, very complex, so the more involved an Arab American would become in a campaign, the more he would have an opportunity to voice his opinion.”
Individuals can also voice their opinion by making a financial contribution to a campaign. Like it or not –” and most candidates claim not to like it –” a campaign must secure at least a minimal amount of funding before it can expect to compete effectively. Bouchard said, “Unfortunately –” and I think this is one of the hardest things for an elected official to accept –” you simply can’t run a campaign or be an elected official without receiving generous donations.” Farrah added that every donation, no matter how small, helps her campaign a great deal. She said, “People don’t realize that even twenty dollars helps so much. You really need to have funds available to have people recognize your name.”
Even if they choose not to serve as volunteers or donate to a campaign, individuals can make a real difference in the political process simply by writing or talking to candidates. For example, each interviewee reported making a strong effort to read and respond to every piece of mail that came his or her way. Ajjan noted that he often responds to e-mails requesting his position on a particular issue by suggesting that the e-mail’s author organize an issue forum, or gathering of other curious constituents. Ajjan will attend the forum, outline his position in detail, and take questions from the audience –” an excellent way for individuals to communicate their concerns to a candidate.
Farrah talked energetically about the numerous lessons she’s learned just from stopping to talk with constituents. She emphasized that even though she sits on only a limited number of committees, she is expected to vote on every matter that comes before her legislature. Since she does not always get to hear the testimony presented to other committees, she encourages comments from constituents who will be affected by her decisions. According to Farrah, these individuals help her to put “a face and a person and a family” on seemingly minor bills or budgetary concerns. Ajjan concurred, saying that when constituents recount a “personal experience and the hardships they’ve faced, it’s impossible to ignore.”
By and large, the interviewees made a convincing case for the importance of the individual to the political process. They were quick to note, however, that it takes some effort on the part of the individual to effect a change. Just as Ajjan vows to win his election “one handshake at a time,” individuals can make a difference one vote, volunteer experience, or donation at a time.