By Ethan Gardner, Honors Civic Engagement
State-level political and civic engagement faces barriers in information distribution and stratified participation on race and class lines. My experience of Virginia politics through the Traveling Town Hall, attending a meeting of the Virginia Complete Count Commission, and lobbying trips with the Student Government Association and Virginia21 highlight some of the strategies for boosting civic participation at the state level. These include bringing together stakeholders who are community leaders from various groups throughout the Commonwealth and acting through them in communicating and implementing programs. It also includes bringing engagement activities, such as candidates for election, to voters rather than expecting people to seek engagement fully on their own. These methods should be expanded to promote greater participation at the state level.
Virginia’s status as a part-time legislature results in overrepresentation of affluent people in positions of power. Virginia has a nostalgic idea of a “citizen legislature” in which Delegates and Senators work part-time for about $17,000 a year. For the most part, only people who are in professional fields where they make significant amounts of money and/or they can take significant time off for session can serve as elected officials. It results in a bias towards wealthier Virginians that are disproportionately white and male. It systematically keeps out working class people and people of color, which has an impact on the results of the policy process. These structures must be challenged by people of diverse backgrounds, as they recently have been, to facilitate a diversity of perspectives in the legislative process.
Political engagement at the state level faces significant challenges in general participation rates, especially when contrasted against engagement in national politics. In Virginia, state level elections happen in off-years between federal elections. There is routinely lower turnout in state level elections, especially in years where it is only the General Assembly up for election. There is a significant information gap for many people, as major media generally does not cover state level issues in significant depth and local or regional news companies have been in decline. The increased focus on national politics, often at the expense of coverage of political activities at the state-level, contributes to a general information gap within the general population.
Over the past two years, I have planned and taken part in lobbying trips to the General Assembly and Congress with the Student Government Association twice, respectively. In these trips, the experiences at the state and federal level have differed in major ways. In the General Assembly, meeting with elected officials in person is common, as half of my meetings this year were with the actual Delegate or Senator. Meeting a Congress person, even for a brief moment, is almost unheard of. The General Assembly is a far more informal setting than that of Capitol Hill. Being from a large public university in the state means that our voices are heard by elected members of the General Assembly in a much more serious fashion than the average office on Capitol Hill.
General Assembly committees have open public comment periods in which anyone can take the stand to speak, providing a forum for individuals to share their perspectives directly with elected officials and the media. For individuals who know this is an option and have the ability to be in a committee room at the time it is meeting, usually during the work day, it can have an impact on decision-making. This semester, during a lobbying trip with Virginia21, our Director of Engagement Tim Cywinski, shared a story of his mother speaking to a committee debating Medicaid expansion in Virginia. His mother shared an emotional story about having a son with a debilitating health condition that was expensive to the point of bankruptcy and that without Medicaid expansion, she would have to choose between her financial security and her son’s life. He shared how the story garnered state-wide news attention and swayed votes. This is an example of how individuals can get themselves involved in policy in a public and visible way. At the same time, this type of engagement is biased towards those who live in or close to Richmond and to people who have access to transportation to get to those meetings. Committees usually meet during daytime hours so people who work hourly jobs would be less able to take time off to attend a specific meeting to share concerns they have. Additionally, the lack of knowledge of state politics on a broad level impacts how many people would know enough to speak on an issue and know how and when to comment publicly in this process.
Experience with state government has shown the immense importance of actively including citizens and underrepresented groups in the policy process. The 2020 Census will be incredibly important in the allocation of representation across Virginia, as well as the funding of many major social programs regionally. Attending the Virginia Complete Count Commission’s meeting in January showcased how the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office tries to include representatives of as many communities as possible. A significant piece of the outreach efforts emphasized the importance working through trusted community members in communication of the Census. Engaging people in the political process by identifying and working through trusted community leaders is one strategy to break into communities that have not been traditionally active in the political process.
Trust in the political process is essential to promoting public participation and effectively including many voices in decision-making. The representative of Native American tribes in Virginia said at the Complete Count Commission meeting that there is no group that distrusts the government more than native peoples and that this would be a significant obstacle in counting their communities fully. Similarly, at the census event in Harrisonburg, significant concerns were raised about how to assuage fears in the immigrant community over the citizenship question and whether they would be safe filling the forms out. There was little resolution to the question of how to overcome these fears. It is often groups that have the least political and economic resources that have the highest distrust in the political process. It creates a vicious cycle in which underrepresented groups, such as racial and ethnic minorities, disengage from the political process because of distrust, which then results in their voices being left out of policy decisions that have major effects on them. In the context of the Census, racial minorities and Native Americans are routinely undercounted, resulting in lower levels of political representation and millions of dollars lost in spending on social programs that would benefit their communities. It is incumbent on state officials to promote the involvement of underrepresented groups to counteract this.
Bringing the engagement to people rather than forcing people to seek it out is an important aspect of civic engagement, especially at the state level where elected officials are geographically closer to the people they represent. This year’s Traveling Town Hall with Tony Wilt, Cathy Copeland, and Brent Finnegan was an event that showcased this need. Students live, work, and contribute economically to the towns they go to school in and should hear from their elected officials. Many students also don’t have cars, especially if they are Freshmen, so expecting civic and political engagement can be difficult. With the Traveling Town Hall, candidates for elected office were brought to students directly, allowing a forum for students to get informed and ask questions of the people seeking to represent them. A friend of mine who lives in Grace Street was very appreciative of the event, sharing with me that she takes a full course load, works 30 or more hours a week, and does not have a car, so attending events held by campaigns is often not possible. The Traveling Town Hall allowed her to simply walk downstairs to hear from her current Delegate and the two challengers also vying for that office. The principle of bringing engagement to people is essential to including diverse voices.
While there are some examples in Virginia of active incorporation of underrepresented groups into the political process, it remains an exclusionary system on many levels. Work from elected officials, public and private institutions, and organizations like the James Madison Center for Civic Engagement, need to continue and expand to bring more voices into the fold. For most of Virginia’s history, political power has been held by a homogenous wealthy, white, and male power structure. In recent years, more women and people of color have been to elected to office, but an imbalance remains. Electing diverse individuals and expanding on inclusive methods of engagement will produce greater participation at the state level of government.