Since the 2016 election season, political activism and awareness seems to be on the rise. Our representative democracy functions best when citizens participate, so increased collective interest in how our government works and how to participate in it are definitely good, even when they bring into sharp focus the depth of political divisions in our nation. No matter where your opinions and positions fall on any social or political spectrum, understanding the basics of how our government works, including the role that political parties play, will help you be more effective in adding your voice to our national discourse. If you’re relatively new to the policy world or just need a quick refresher, keep reading for a brief overview of our representative democracy and your role in it.
Congress and most state legislatures are bicameral, meaning they are comprised of two separate chambers, each with different rules about how many representatives are in each. Every person in the United States has two US Senators and one US Representative that represents them (and other constituents who live in the same area) in Congress.
The Senate has the same number of representatives – 2 – per state (or county or other jurisdictional division) for 100 US Senators total. No matter how many people are in each state, no matter how much land, each state is weighted equally in terms of their number of votes in the Senate. The Senators from each state are elected independently of each other for 6-year terms and may be from the same political party or different parties. Each Senator is considered a representative of all the constituents from their state and everyone who is allowed to vote in each state may vote for both Senators.
The number or representatives each state has in the House of Representatives is proportionally distributed based (roughly) on state population (as measured by the decennial Census), so states with more people have more representatives. There are 435 voting members of the House of Representatives plus 6 non-voting delegates representing the US territories and the city of Washington, DC. Members of the House are elected independently of each other for 2-year terms, which means all representatives from every state are up for election (or re-election) every two years. Representatives are assigned to specific geographical jurisdictions within each state, so only voters who reside within that geographic area vote for their Representative. Each voter will vote for only one Representative.
Elected officials, no matter if they are in Congress, state, or local legislative bodies, are responsible for representing the interests of the citizens in the jurisdiction that elected them, which is why our form of government is called a representative democracy. Rather than each citizen having a vote on every issue directly (which would be a true democracy), we elect a smaller number of representatives to speak and vote on our behalf. Our responsibility, therefore, doesn’t end at the ballot box; we need to remain in contact with our elected officials throughout the year to let them know how we think they should vote on issues that matter to us.
In a perfect world, every elected official would always vote in keeping with the wishes of the majority of their constituents. It is reasonable, though not always accurate, to assume that most elected officials intend to genuinely and fairly represent the wishes of their constituents on every issue, but in order to do so, they must feel confident that they know those wishes. The volume of bills that elected officials collectively respond to is too large for them to be able to poll their constituents for every bill. One role of the major political parties, therefore, is to make it easier for elected officials to make educated assumptions about the will of their constituents. By aligning themselves to a political party, elected officials publicly state their agreement with the many of the positions espoused by the party. Voters can then identify the candidate that will best represent their views on the issues they care about the most and vote accordingly.
The alignment between constituents and party views is rarely fully in agreement, however, so there are many times when elected officials must choose whether to listen to the voices of those constituents who have contact them (which for most issues is a small percentage of the total constituents they represent) or proceed with the direction of the platform laid out by the party they are affiliated with. As a constituent, the only way to be sure that your representatives know your views on issues you care about is to contact them. You can sign up for alerts about bills related to specific topics that interest you – including alerts from Congress directly – so you know when your representatives are considering legislation on topics that are of most importance to you.
Any resident of an elected official’s jurisdiction can contact the official to express their opinion on any issue. You don’t need to have voted for the person who was elected, or even to have voted at all, in order to speak your opinion to your representatives. There are many websites where you can look up contact information for your state and federal representatives. If a bill is up for vote in Congress or your state legislature, you can reach out to the person who represents you by phone call, fax, postal mail, email, text message, or by attending a meeting or event being held by them. Keep in mind that unless you are representing your employer’s opinion or stance in an official capacity, you should always use a personal email address when contacting your elected officials by email. This is especially important if you work for a public institution, where additional laws may restrict your use of institutional resources, such as email servers or work time, to contact elected officials. It’s generally a best practice to contact your officials during your non-work hours from a personal email address to avoid any appearance of impropriety. It's also important to identify yourself as a constituent of the person you're contacting by giving your zip code; elected officials are officially charged with representing only those constituents from the area they were elected from, so establishing you're one of their constituents is important.
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