How to Get Involved, Politically

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The protests over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, as well as other recent high-profile killings of African-Americans, have strengthened a mood of political activism in the United States.

Right now, protests against racism and police brutality are taking place across the country. But you might want to act on climate change, gun violence or other issues that feel urgent and important to you. There are many ways to get involved politically, and taking to the streets is just one of them. Here’s an overview of your options.

This piece is based largely on an earlier guide about participating in politics.

How to be more politically active:

Protest, Safely

Over the last few years, we’ve seen some of the biggest public demonstrations in United States history, including the Women’s March in 2017, marches against gun violence and now the George Floyd protests.

Given the current coronavirus pandemic, however, some health experts warn that protesting now could help spread the virus. Protesters who are arrested and detained in crowded conditions or those who are older or have health challenges could face a greater threat.

In a recent radio interview, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that decision making about protesting today was a “delicate balance” adding, “there certainly is a risk, I would say that with confidence.” His advice: If you choose to protest around others, wear a mask and keep it on at all times.

In general, to protest effectively, especially if you’re part of organizing a march, familiarize yourself with guidelines on what’s involved.

Some activists have moved their protesting online during the pandemic, flooding social media with coordinated messages and videos or gathering on virtual platforms like Zoom. But if you are going to join an in-person demonstration:

Know your rights. Your right to protest peacefully is guaranteed under the First Amendment. A large majority of demonstrations take place without law enforcement intervention. But be clear about the degree of risk you’re willing to assume in a worst-case scenario.

“What is your tolerance if things get a little hairy?” asked Emerson Sykes, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Are you willing to defy a curfew? Go toe to toe with the police? Be beaten with a baton? If you’re African-American or undocumented, that might also affect what risks you want to take.”

There’s always the possibility that smartphone technology could be used to track your movements, so put your phone in airplane mode and consider making other adjustments to your settings. If you get arrested, Mr. Sykes said, the two key things to remember are to keep silent and to call a lawyer — not a family member — immediately. If you don’t have a lawyer, write the name of local legal aid on your arm, in permanent marker, before you go to the protest.

Plan for your needs. Summer marches can be hot; bring water, snacks and sun protection, as well as cash and ID. Wear comfortable shoes. If you’re protesting during the pandemic, wear a mask, use hand sanitizer often, avoid touching your face and consider wearing goggles to protect against the virus and tear gas.


Protesting isn’t the only way to raise your political voice. Voting is a complementary activity with a similar goal — translating frustrations into political change, said Cliff Albright, the co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, which works to boost voter turnout. “These two strategies have to work together. They’ve always worked together.”

Mr. Albright points to Ferguson, Mo., where a groundswell of activism in response to the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown, a black 18-year-old, helped lead to the election of the city’s first black mayor this month. “That pain and protest was combined with building electoral power,” he said. “It’s not an either or, it’s a both and.”

Mr. Albright said he saw early signs of a similar transformation in Minneapolis, where the City Council has pledged to dismantle the Police Department. And although voting matters, the United States has among the lowest voter turnout of developed nations. Here are some proactive steps to take to increase the odds that you will vote.

Learn your state’s voting laws. Yes, they differ from state to state.

What do you need to do to register? Do you need to be registered with a political party to vote in a primary election? What identification will you need at a polling place? If you want to vote early or prefer, because of the pandemic, to vote from home, what are your state’s rules around voting by mail?

You don’t want to deal with these issues in the final days before an election — and run into a problem that you can’t solve in time. The Fair Elections Center offers an annually updated guide to each state’s voting laws. A quick Google search should turn up the website for your state’s secretary of state, who often serves as the chief election official. These websites include information on election dates, absentee voting and other issues.

Make a voting plan. Social scientists have found that people who were asked to come up with a specific plan, including when and where they would vote, were significantly more likely to cast a ballot. Announcing your plan to others, in person or on social media, is a good way to hold yourself accountable.

Use peer pressure. Telling others about your voting plan can also remind them to vote. And if you’re willing to be a bit bold, ask your friends what their voting plan is. Then follow up and ask if they kept to it. Academic researchers and advocates believe those questions really do influence behavior.

Get the word out. You can also sign up with a campaign or cause to phone bank from home, or write postcards to voters reminding them to plan to cast a ballot. Or you can get on a platform like Outvote — which many campaigns and groups have used during the pandemic — to send voting and other political information to people in your social network.

When it comes to voting, “social pressure is mighty persuasive,” Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, has said.

Lobby Lawmakers

Citizen lobbying is a way to voice your views to the elected lawmakers who represent you, and to put pressure on them to make decisions in ways that reflect your views. It’s happened repeatedly in recent years: the citizens who lobbied Congress and helped save the Affordable Care Act from repeal; the gun-rights advocates who have been so effective for decades; and now the activists demanding police reform in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s killing.

Here are some strategies.

Deal locally. Local politicians have tremendous authority over issues that touch people’s daily lives, like funding schools, setting speed limits and training police officers. If you’re agitating for change, pressuring local elected officials can be a good place to start.

It’s often easier to reach a local official than you might think: A phone call or email may well suffice, said Steve Fletcher, a member of the Minneapolis City Council and former community organizer. Consider attending outreach events (Mr. Fletcher holds a coffee meeting every week), City Council meetings or public hearings by committees that can address your concern — or all three. “There is a power to showing up,” he said. “The interactions move from being a one-time contact to feeling really relational.”

In smaller settings, the voices of frustrated citizens, or ones who propose a specific solution to a problem, can be influential. “An awful lot of the people serving in local elected roles actually really want to hear from constituents,” said Mr. Fletcher. “Just shoot us an email and see what happens.”

On Washington. Members of Congress can be harder to reach, but a phone call is still often your best bet. Calls tend to be more effective than emails, because calls are harder to ignore. When the phone rings, people in the Congress member’s office hear it. If they receive dozens or hundreds of calls in a single day, the calls can dominate the office atmosphere.

If you are lobbying a representative in Washington, try to get someone on the phone rather than leaving a voice mail message. Ask to speak to the lawmaker directly. If you can’t, ask to speak to the aide who handles the issue you are calling about. Be clear about the specific action you want the member to take, such as a committee vote. Throughout, politeness and civility are vital.

Make it personal and public. If an issue affects you personally — if you have witnessed the impact of racism in your community, for example — tell the member’s staff when you call or write a letter. Written notes still have value. “It sounds outmoded, but it’s 100 times the value of an email,” said Mark Meckler, a former Tea Party organizer. Be respectful, clear and specific about why you’re writing. If relevant, tell a personal story.

Consider making a public version of your statement, too, such as creating a video, writing a Facebook post or writing an op-ed in a local publication. Doing so can spread your story to other citizens. It can also echo: Many legislators’ offices monitor social and local media for direct appeals from constituents.

Give Money

We recommend you start by choosing among three ways to give — to a cause, a candidate or a party.

To a cause. Many Americans feel more passionate about issues than about politicians or parties. For them, donating to a cause can be the best solution, because their money will also ultimately support candidates who back that cause. There is no shortage of such groups — for and against abortion rights; for and against gun control; to protect the environment; and on and on.

Many mutual aid societies and similar networks — grass-roots efforts allowing neighbors to directly support one another — have recently sprung up, first around the pandemic and then the Black Lives Matter protests. Search online to find groups in your area.

To a party. The most meaningful information about politicians today is their party. Once you know someone’s party, you know how they will vote the overwhelming majority of the time. That didn’t used to be true, but it is today.

If you’re like most Americans, you align much more with one party than the other. So the best way to affect policy on a long list of issues — immigration, health care, taxes and more — is to donate to a political party.

Party committees are one good option. For example, if you’re a Democrat, said Michael Barber, a political scientist at Brigham Young University, “You could spend hours and hours investigating where your money would be most useful. Or you could just give it to the Democratic Party and let them make that decision, because that’s their job.” The same goes for Republicans.

For federal elections, consider donating to one of four groups: one that helps Republican Senate candidates, Republican House candidates, Democratic Senate candidates or Democratic House candidates.

To a candidate. Giving directly to candidates might be the most emotionally rewarding donor experience — we all want the feeling of helping someone whose cause we believe in. If your preferred candidate is new to politics, unlikely to win party endorsement or more ideologically extreme, it’s also often one of the more effective ways to help.

Run for Office

“Politics is nothing magical: It’s people making decisions on behalf of other people,” said Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, a progressive group. “If you want better policy, change the people who are making the decisions.”

Here’s how to make it happen.

Start small. Local offices often shape citizens’ lives most directly, and state legislatures are often in charge of drawing the districts that, in turn, shape Congress. Yet many of these local races are ignored. In 2014, more than a third of state legislature races had only one candidate running in them.

Organize. You don’t need veteran political consultants or a law degree to run for office. Running generally takes three M’s: mobilization, a message and money, Ms. Litman said. In short, it takes a plan.

  • Mobilization Understand the community you want to represent and build a network of people who can help your campaign. An example: When Morgan Murtaugh, a San Diego Republican, ran for the House of Representatives in 2018, she asked friends, family and people she knew who worked in politics if they would support her. “I said, ‘Look, I’m thinking about doing this. I need to decide by tomorrow. I just want to know, would you be able to support me, volunteer-wise, financially?’” she said. “‘Would this be something you could get behind?’ And every single person I talked to, overwhelmingly, said yes.” Next, figure out the rules for getting your name on the ballot. Map out your campaign on paper. Determine which voters you should target and how you’ll reach them through canvassing, phone banking, email, yard signs, paid advertising or social media. Include a timeline with significant milestones and a detailed budget.

  • Message Write a plan that explains why you’re running, what your message is and how you’ll bring that message to voters.

  • Money Calculate how much money it will take to run and how you will raise it. Ms. Litman suggested doing a web search that includes the name of the office you want to run for, the name of your state, and the words “campaign finance report.” That should bring you to the website of a board that oversees elections and ultimately to campaign-finance disclosure forms from past election cycles. Look up how much candidates spent on field operations and media to run for the seat you’re interested in over the past few years, especially if the race was competitive.

Don’t get discouraged. Running for office is hard. It’s even harder for candidates running against someone who’s already gotten elected. Incumbents win around 90 percent of races for state legislature. If you’re running to unseat one, understand that you’ll probably lose.

And sometimes losing now leads to winning later. The list of people who’ve suffered painful electoral losses includes Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, Ronald Reagan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.