Networking and Mentoring Programs Encourage Interest
BY SARAH WENGERT
There’s an old saying that, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” But over the past couple years, it’s been difficult for our country’s explosive political landscape to escape the attention of even the most unflappable, least politically minded American citizen. Regardless of one’s political views, it seems we are all most certainly united in paying lots of attention these days.
For all of our headline fatigue, one positive thing to come from America’s state of affairs is that citizens are getting involved at higher rates. People of all political stripes are mobilizing to vote, march and advocate for the issues they care about. Two local organizations—the League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha and Heartland Workers Center—are helping Omahans better participate in their democracy, from getting registered to vote, to informing themselves on candidates, to holding elected officials accountable and beyond.
The League of Women Voters was formed in response to women winning the right to vote in 1920, with the mission to encourage women to become informed, active participants in government. League of Women Voters of Greater Omaha (LWVGO) President Ann Chalson says the organization of today is “at the forefront of the push to remove barriers to voting,” as well as continuing to provide nonpartisan, fact-based information on the issues of the day.
“We study key community issues to achieve solutions that all members can agree upon, such as our current Water Study and our studies on Juvenile Justice and Money in Politics,” Chalson says.
While LWVGO helps people vote and advocate, they do not attempt to commandeer their points of view in any way. The organization simply focuses on empowering citizens with information and access. “As a nonpartisan political organization, we do not support or oppose any candidate or party; however, we support or oppose issues that we have studied and on which we have formed positions,” Chalson says.
“The League offers equal access to our Voters Guide and Vote411 to all candidates for each office in which they can answer the same questions, with the same word count, without editing. Candidate forums conducted by the League allow all candidates to answer the same or similar questions with the same time limitations.”
Chalson says there are four Leagues in Nebraska—Omaha, Lincoln, Seward and Hastings—which comprise the state-level organization that, in turn, feeds into the national organization. “Lawsuits on statewide issues such as voting restrictions and statewide gerrymandering are conducted at the state level,” she says.
LWVGO produces a Voters Guide and vote411.org for Douglas County municipal elections, as well as candidate forums for upcoming elections. They also do a public access television show on KPAO covering policies affecting Omaha called “Go Vote Omaha,” with programming also available on YouTube. The League’s Observer Corp attends council, board and legislative meetings and hearings, with their lobbyists testifying before those bodies to remind elected officials of the issues important to the LWVGO.
Additionally, the organization works tirelessly to get out the vote. “Our Voter Services Committee arranges voter registration events for high schools, community colleges, University of Nebraska Omaha and community events, as well as for all naturalization ceremonies held at the Roman Hruska Federal Courthouse,” Chalson says. “Voter Services and the Get Out the Vote Committee also work with the Douglas County Election Commission on ways to make voting more accessible to more Omaha voters.”
Chalson says the LWV has welcomed men as members since 1973, in an effort to encourage all voters to be engaged and informed. But the emphasis remains on serving women. “As long as women are only about 20 percent of elected officials in the United States, our emphasis is on the involvement of women in public life,” she says.
To that end, twice a year LWVGO hosts “Running and Winning,” an event to which around 50 high school girls are invited to meet with past and present female elected officials and learn why the women ran for office and what they do/did in their positions. The students then create a pro or con campaign based on an issue presented to them that day.
LWVGO also created a class on the history of voting in America that includes information on voting in Douglas County. “At the start of the session, each student is given a piece of candy and a slip of paper [that says] either ‘I Voted’ or ‘I Didn’t Vote’ based on the percentage of registered voters who participated in the last election,” Chalson says.
“All stand, then those with ‘I Didn’t Vote’ are asked to sit down. They are told that those standing are the ones who have made all of the decisions for the group. Those sitting then have to hand their candy to the ones standing.”
Chalson says she’s particularly proud of the LWVGO’s efforts with young women, their printed and online voting guides, and various voter registration efforts. Crucial issues to Omaha and Nebraska right now include automatic voter registration, nonpartisan redistricting and defeating the attempt to pass laws requiring voter photo identification, she says.
“As we have seen in the news about the Virginia state election, every vote counts. Elected officials at the state and local level listen to their constituents carefully. A few letters, emails or phone calls greatly affect their actions.”
At Heartland Workers Center (HWC), Executive Director Sergio Sosa and Lead Organizer Abbie Kretz are also working to emphasize the importance of every vote and the enfranchisement of every citizen.
“Being civically engaged is important in order to ensure that our self interests are heard,” Kretz says. “We cannot just sit around and hope that our public officials will do what is best for us—we must tell them what we want by meeting with them and voting, and these actions have more weight when done collectively, not just as individuals.
Latinos have often been excluded from many political/economic systems. [We work to] bring them up to the playing field in order to be more engaged and active in their communities.” Sosa says HWC was born of a need he and others saw in the Omaha Latino community, particularly as the Latino population continued to grow throughout Nebraska.
After thousands gathered for a series of immigration reform rallies in downtown Omaha in Spring 2006, that need was crystallized and the groundwork was laid for HWC, which launched in 2009 and earned nonprofit status in 2010. “[Back then], there weren’t many organizations led by immigrants, especially Latinos, so it was the right time to start one,” Sosa says.
“Today, HWC’s vision is to build a community that works for all. [We focus] primarily on Latinos, but also on minorities and people of color in Omaha and rural areas. Leadership development, civic engagement and workers rights are our top objectives.” Kretz says HWC supports people in identifying their own interests and working towards solutions that are important to them and their families.
“Our mission at HWC is to improve the quality of life of Latinos in Nebraska. We work to accomplish this goal by finding, training and developing leaders who can become protagonists of their own lives—where they learn the skills necessary to effectively engage with others in public life—whether it be in their community/neighborhood, workplace or with elected officials,” she says.
Kretz says that while HWC serves men and women, they’ve found that women are typically more engaged and active with HWC. “[Women] are the ones who, as leaders within their families, are often able to encourage others to be engaged. Many of the leaders we work with are women, as well as the majority of our staff.”
Sosa agrees, noting that HWC’s Get-Out-The-Vote program is based around the notion of “I Vote For My Family,” because women have so often been the ones who compel their families and neighbors to get out and vote.
“Civic engagement and voting participation is a learning process [as] the new voter Latino community is learning to engage themselves in public life—to attend meetings with politicians and hold them accountable, but overall to have more clarity on their issues … and [to understand] that the future of their families depends on the present and the future of voting participation,” Sosa says.
The HWC offers bilingual information and trainings, encouraging all eligible voters to participate in campaigns, canvass, phone bank, get other citizens to vote, and use social media to disseminate information about voting participation. There is also guidance on understanding data and analyzing it to build research-based strategies, understanding workers rights, reading newspapers, books, articles and more.
“We provide leadership trainings that teach people about power, leadership and organizing. The purpose is to make people reflect upon their own lives and how they’ve given up their consent of power, what level of leader they are, and how they engage with others. Through our civic engagement program, we run Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns during election cycles, providing information to voters about the election process in Nebraska and nonpartisan voter guides.
Our goal is to train leaders on how to run these campaigns and to encourage those within their networks to vote,” says Kretz, noting that HWC also engages in the legislative process at the Unicameral, supporting relevant bills and training leaders on how the legislative process works.
Sosa says that while the United States is seen as the land of opportunity and hope by many immigrants, it is also the land of many challenges for them, including poverty, inequality, discrimination, apathy, racism and lack of inclusion. “HWC can play a catalyst role in bringing other organizations together,” Sosa says.
“We can be part of powerful alliances with organizations like Nebraska Civic Engagement Table, Coalition for a Strong Nebraska, Women’s Fund of Omaha or the Rural Community Initiative Project in rural areas. Speaking the language and understanding the immigrant culture, traditions and values plays a big role as well.”
Kretz says the current political climate has caused a lot of fear and uncertainty in the community. “This either paralyzed folks from acting or pushed them to be more engaged and active in the community. We’ve seen both sides of this,” she says. “The key thing is for folks to know what issues are important to them, see how they can connect to organizations working on those issues and get involved.
In today’s political climate it may seem easy to just decide to stay home, that your voice doesn’t matter. But today, more than ever, it does. A phone call, a letter or an email requesting a meeting with an elected official, asking questions—we cannot just simply accept things as they are. We must work to build communities, cities and states that we want for ourselves and our families.”
In 2018, HWC plans to advocate for immigration reform, especially DACA and TPS, as well as registering voters and getting people to the polls, among many other local, state and federal issues. But both Kretz and Sosa emphasize the importance of determining your own set of important issues and making your unique voice heard.
“It’s key for people to not be discouraged or apathetic to what is happening in our current climate,” Kretz says. “Instead [they must] push forward and look for opportunities to be engaged—to challenge their own notions that their voice doesn’t matter, because it does—and when we can all truly believe that and act upon it, we can make change in Omaha for the good of all.” W
What is the Unicameral and How Does it Work?
Fun Fact: Nebraska is the only state in the nation with a unicameral legislature. While other states have bicameral legislatures that function similarly to the federal government’s two house model of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Cornhusker State has just one streamlined, nonpartisan body. Nebraska made the switch from bicameral to unicameral in 1935, largely due to the efforts of U.S. Senator George Norris, who believed a unicameral legislature would be more cost-effective and efficient for Nebraskans.
The Nebraska Unicameral is the nation’s smallest state legislature, with 49 senators serving 49 legislative districts—each of which contains about 35,000 constituents. Each senator is elected to a four-year term and compensated just $12,000 per year.
In the unicameral, a single legislature is comprised of a biennium spanning two years and two corresponding regular lawmaking sessions. There are 90 working days in the first year of a biennium, which occurs in an odd-numbered year, and typically lasts until mid-June. In the second, even-numbered year of a biennium, there are 60 working days and the session typically lasts until mid-April. The governor may also call for special sessions.
The basic stages of Nebraska’s lawmaking process are research and introduction of bills, committee hearings, three stages of floor debate and approval or veto by the governor. To provide checks and balances otherwise offered by a bicameral system where two separate houses must each approve a bill before it becomes law, a bill in the unicameral must be approved by its committee and three rounds of floor consideration (general file, select file and final reading) before becoming a law. After a bill is introduced it first goes to committee, where it advances, is put on hold or fails. If advanced from committee, a bill next goes to general file.
If it does not fail at this stage it can be advanced or amended, then promoted to select file. Likewise, if a bill does not fail at that stage it can be advanced or amended before its final reading. Bills that fail after final reading have reached the end of the line and if a specific amendment is required at this stage they return to select file, but if passed at this stage they go to the governor’s desk. The governor then has five days (exempting Sundays) to act on the bill. If he or she signs or declines to act on a bill, it becomes state law. The governor may also choose to veto a bill, and that veto can only be overridden by a three-fifths vote of the unicameral.
How to Ace Advocacy
First, Inform Yourself
Knowledge is power, so for powerful advocacy efforts start by getting informed. Even if you have an established opinion on an issue, you never know what you might learn. If your opinion stands, then learning all sides of an issue will only make your case stronger. Consume quality, fact-driven, objective media and information. Always consider your source when seeking news and information. Go to the most direct source whenever possible.
Rock the Vote!
The No. 1 way to get involved is showing up to the polls. Choices will be made whether you show up or not, so have your say. Nebraska’s statewide primary election day is May 15, 2018, and the general election is November 6, 2018.
Encourage a Healthy Electorate
OK, so you rocked the vote like a total rock star. But don’t you want all Americans to enjoy that right? What can you do to help ensure that young people and members of marginalized communities get registered to vote? Get involved and get out the vote by assisting with efforts to register voters.
Contact Your Elected Reps
Email, call, fax, send flowers—whether you have positive or negative feedback for your elected representatives, let them know. Particularly on the local and state level, your feedback can have a significant policy impact. But don’t stop dialing D.C., too. Program your representatives’ contact information into your phone or use a service like Resistbot to ease your advocacy.
Alert the Media
If you’re passionate about an issue, send a letter to the editor or contact a journalist with a story pitch. You can also share quality, fact-based media with your social and personal networks to promote good journalism when you see it.
Talk Amongst Yourselves
Just because many political social media threads are cesspools should not mean the death of civil discourse. Get off the internet and converse. Whether they’re inclined to agree with you or not, invite friends, family and others to respectfully discuss issues that matter to you. Try to find common ground, even if it’s just a sliver, and build from there.
Support Your Candidates
Go beyond bumper stickers. Volunteer for and donate to candidates you believe in. Subscribe to their emails and follow them on social media. Attend their campaign events and invite a friend to come along.
Get Ready to Run!
Women nationwide are joining the race by seeking election. Feeling underserved and let down by your local, state or federal reps? Throw your hat in the ring and be the change you wish to see in the world. Not Ready to Run? Support a candidate! There are lots of amazing candidates who need your help.