It's time to seize the moment and spur participation in our democracy
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As Russell Dalton notes in his article Citizenship Norms and the Expansion of Political Participation, “Without public involvement in the process, democracy lacks both its legitimacy and its guiding force.”

To the detriment of American democracy and the health of our shared civic institutions, political participation has dwindled slowly in recent decades. In August 2016, for example, the Pew Research Center ranked the United States No. 31 out of 35 developed countries for voter turnout based on voting age populace amongst other democratic countries.

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However, following the 2016 presidential election we have witnessed an emerging trend: a growing interest in American political affairs coupled with an increase in grassroots energy throughout the United States. While it is yet to be proven whether this increase in political engagement will stand the test of time (or even until the 2018 election cycle) and translate to a long-term increase in voting, this is a positive trend in political efficacy.

 

Regardless of party affiliation or ideology, it is a critical time for civic and social organizations to capitalize on America’s heightened interest in the body politic. Further, it is instrumental that new and innovative organizations step up to the plate to not only sustain, but also improve engagement amongst our nation’s diverse constituencies so that elected officials are attentive to America’s complex interests.

Three organizations or mechanisms in particular are capitalizing on the political shift and increased demand for channels to exert grassroots participation.

To effectively cultivate political energy, one must recognize that the fabric of our political and social communities is interwoven. An organization that understands this is HeadCount, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes participation in democracy through the power of music. Since its inception in 2004, HeadCount is responsible for registering nearly 500,000 voters at as many as 1,000 concerts a year. By reaching large volumes of young people and music fans at music concerts and online, HeadCount makes it easier for young Americans to engage in their communities.

The correlation between entertainment and political involvement is not only something prominent celebrities engage in to promote particular causes they care about. In fact, through organizations like Headcount, celebrities can amplify the collective voice of grassroots advocates. By partnering with over 100 touring musicians including Dave Matthews Band, Jay-Z, Wilco, Phish, and the Dixie Chicks, HeadCount has created a robust volunteer network, known as “street teams,” who get to promote political participation and listen to their favorite DJs and bands in the process.

Another organization in the midst of the grassroots groundswell is My Ride to Vote, a federal nonpartisan organization that funds free rides to the polls for voters on Election Day. On the ground, My Ride to Vote works with local civic and voter registration organizations to get new voters engaged in the political process.

By implementing a robust in-bound text messaging platform for voter targeting, leveraging relationships at the grassroots level with voter registration organizations, and funding free Uber rides, My Ride to Vote is exploring new channels to both reach and transport new voters to the polls. Ultimately, this collaborative initiative serves to increase political participation in the country’s most underserved areas.

In 2016, My Ride to Vote provided nearly 20,000 rides in three states for the presidential election. My Ride to Vote is launching its 2017 campaign by funding free rides to the polls in Georgia’s 6th congressional district runoff election scheduled on June 20. Their efforts were recently featured in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper.

In March 2017, Facebook released their Town Hall feature allowing users to contact elected officials from the platform. Many associations, non-profits, and corporate grassroots arms offer this technology on their own individual platforms, but this new initiative now opens those capabilities to nearly 198 million Americans that are of a voting age.

It will be interesting to see if this development increases the volume of calls to congressional offices in the near future. Is it sustainable? How will the tool affect the quality of calls? How will Capitol Hill respond and maintain their intake process. These questions are important topics in modern grassroots advocacy, especially when it comes to social media engagement.

Because grassroots advocacy adheres to the trends of the American people, it is an ever-changing field with constant technological advancements. As such, to effectively garner participation in our democracy, the advocacy community must continue to adapt the methods by which it facilitates engagement in government affairs.

What makes My Ride to Vote, Headcount, and Facebook successful is that they have found unique channels to target advocates, and voters, to encourage legislative and political action using existing venues or platforms that are used by many Americans. In 2017, it is critical that similar organizations emerge and capitalize on the elevated grassroots energy amongst our nation’s diverse constituencies.

Joshua Habursky is director of advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America and chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network.

Brian Kaissi is government affairs manager at the Asian American Hotel Owners Association.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.