Be an informed, involved citizen!
Another passion of mine is politics, specifically local politics. I'm a firm believer in the strength of American Democracy, and I hope that everyone in my community is, as well. I believe that being a US citizen means much more than just existing. Protecting our democracy means participating in it. It is our responsibility not just to hold our elected officials accountable, it is also our responsibility to participate in meetings, show up to events, and to inform ourselves using genuine, helpful resources.
To that end, I have assembled this page to help newly of-age voters learn how to participate and gain access to information. Anyone can use the websites below to learn more about candidates who are running in their area. These are all non-biased, non-partisan groups that want to help YOU make informed choices about your government!
For citizens of Rockford, IL, these links are for you!
- Rockford, IL Board of Elections - Rockford has, arguably, the best Board of Elections in the state. Most, if not ALL, of the resources a voter needs is available at their website: VoteRockford.com
- Illinois State Registration and Polling Place Lookup - Find out what districts you are in and if you're registered
- Illinois Voters Guide - Find out who's running, what's on the ballot, etc.
- Illinois State Board of Elections - Everything you need to know about voting!
- Illinois State Board of Elections Answers to your voting questions (registration, absentee ballots, etc.)
- Congressional District Locator (Yes, this one is updated!)
- Winnebago County Elections
How do I know who/what to vote for??
All too often, I hear young people (and even some old people like me) say such things as, "I don't vote because I don't even know what I'm voting for," or I hear, "It's too difficult to prepare to vote, so I just vote one-party." When I hear these things, my heart breaks a little bit... In today's internet-driven world, it's actually SUPER easy to inform ourselves not only of our ballot and election system, but also about the issues, candidates, and ideas! With that in mind, below, I've listed a few steps that any voter can take before election day to be sure they know how to vote when they walk into the booth.
- Double check that you're registered...
- Know your voting districts (District, Ward, Precinct, etc.). This is important because Sample Ballots typically contain ALL the candidates and issues for ALL of the county elections. Your ballot will only have what you're allowed to vote on based on your voting district.
- Find out who and what will be on your ballot by going to your County's Board of Elections website and looking for a "sample ballot." This will help you be sure that you know who and what to research. To find your county's board of election website, just Google the name of your county +"Board of Elections"
- Compile a list of candidates or issues that you don't know.
- Google them! Most candidates today set up websites so that you can learn about them easily. Many local News outlets (TV stations, newspapers, etc.) also list candidates, some of their ideas, etc. Be sure to look for those news outlets that compile all the information in one place; it'll save you time!
- Write down who and what you want to vote for on an index card. In most locations, you can carry a card into the booth with you to help you remember. Don't keep a note in your phone because many polling locations outlaw the use of a phone in a voting booth!
- Make sure you vote
For National Elections...
- Go to VoteSmart.org/VoteEasy and fill out the issues to see who's closest to your viewpoint. This isn't a directive, but it will help give you an idea of candidates you might not have otherwise considered.
- Go to VoteSmart.org and research the candidates you want to know more about
- Go to Politifact.com and FactCheck.org and triple check the candidates facts. Return to these sites to verify information you hear in debates and discussions.
- Use Maplight.org to find out how money influences which bills are debated and which bills are approved or denied by which politicians
- Use GovTrack.us to stay abreast of the work being done in Congress
How do I get involved?
Many of my friends, acquaintances, and students feel that the government is some vague entity, far-removed from our day-to-day lives. While that may be true, to some extent, I believe that we must all remember that our government is OUR government. We, the People, are in charge. We are responsible for electing officials that will do the best job for us and our community. However, that means that we must actively participate in the functioning of our government every day, not just on election day. Below, I've listed some very simple ways to get involved; choose one or choose many... These are the jobs of citizens:
- Attend local (city/county) council meetings whenever possible. Days and times are usually posted on a website.
- Make personal contact with your city officials, especially the ones that represent your area. These are your neighbors that make decisions about streetlights, potholes, etc. They live nearby, and they're just people. You can meet them for coffee or even just make a phone call once in awhile. That way, when you need their assistance, you'll know one another!
- Attend school board meetings whenever possible. Days and times are usually posted on a website. These are your neighbors making decisions about school buildings, tax liabilities, and everything related to schools. This is one of the largest functions of your local government, and the good news is that they're only concerned with one thing: schools!
- If you consider yourself a part of one political party, look up when and where their regularly scheduled meetings are held. In Rockford, our major political parties are organized by County and meet monthly. Attending these meetings is a really easy way to get involved with a large group of like-minded people. They'll be thrilled that you showed up! You can even be appointed to a "Precinct Committeeman" position. These positions are the foot-soldiers of the party, and responsible for a couple of blocks. Their job is to organize a small area of neighbors. It's a great way to begin very simple politics with people you probably already know and see on a regular basis!
- Watch your local news! Those national and cable TV news stations/shows don't cover your local politics, but your local TV station probably does. Your local newspaper also covers local politics, so a subscription online or (for us old-folks) a paper subscription not only keeps you informed of local politics/issues, but it also supports local reporting of important information about how the government is directly affected your area.
- Talk to your neighbors! One of the simplest things you can do is speak with your neighbors; you know, those people that live next door and across the street. If a small number of you stay connected, then each of you only has to stay informed a little bit to ensure that the whole group knows what's going on around town.
- Join or create a neighborhood association/organization... Some may choose to organize a neighborhood association to help with arranging neighborhood events like block sales, block parties, or even Halloween hotspots. Some may choose to organize a neighborhood watch group that will protect the neighborhood. These very small groups work well because everyone knows one another, and these strong neighbor bonds ARE government! I believe they are the most important level of government and perfectly embody the idea that together, we can do things that otherwise would be beyond be reach of an individual. I couldn't afford to throw a block party, but if everyone pitches in a couple dollars + some volunteer time, it's easy!
- Volunteer for local organizations... Chances are, there are tons of organizations operating in your area. Maybe they're working to improve chess in the area. Maybe they're concerned about beautification or local animal shelters. If you're concerned about it, I'll bet there's already a group of people working on it. Find them (Google helps!) and show up at a meeting; they'll be thrilled to see someone new! If you can't find an organization, find one that is similar and attend their meetings; doing so will help you learn how to start and organize your own group!
For State and National government...
- Honestly, the best way to get involved in State and National politics is to start local and work up through the ranks. There's an old saying, "All politics is local politics."
- Your State and National elected representatives have offices in your area, and the also have websites. Sending an e-mail about your concerns will get a response (be prepared to wait, they're BUSY!). Making a phone call to their office about a concern or question will get you connected easily. Setting up a meeting when they are in town on a recess is a great way to get involved. It's easier than you think, and you'll be glad you did! The first time I met with my State Representative about a proposed tax bill, we spoke for a good half-hour. We still disagreed in the end, but we had taught each other much about the other perspective; more importantly, I walked away knowing that my representative had clearly heard my point of view and respected it.
- Attend town-hall meetings whenever you can. If your representative attends a town-hall meeting, BE THERE! It's not nearly as effective as a one-on-one meeting or a phone call, but you'll be there to offer your voice among the many at the town-hall. You'll be able to hear the perspectives of the other attendees, as well. Finally, town-halls are great networking opportunities for you to meet neighbors who might share your views on certain issues; sometimes, these town-halls are the birthplace of new political groups!
- If your representative isn't holding a town-hall any time soon, organize one and invite them! Find a good group of people, find a venue, line up other speakers if you can, arrange snacks if possible, and invite your representative. Inviting the media to attend helps to spread the audience of your town-hall event beyond the event itself.
Suffice to say, there are myriad ways citizens can get involved, and with a minimal amount of effort. We are all busy, but we should never be too busy to do our civic duty and participate in our government. Another old saying goes, "We get the government we deserve." It's up to us... What kind of government do you want?
Non-Partisan Informational Resources
- Answers to your Voting Questions! - VoteSmart FAQ, helpful for those outside Illinois
- Vote Easy - A tool that helps you decide who most closely matches your positions on issues
- Vote Smart - The place to research every candidate (Key votes, public statements, interest group ratings, campaign finances, issues)
- Politifact - Double check the facts/stats that you hear in political speeches, debates, and discussions.
- Fact Check - Triple check the facts/stats that you hear in political speeches, debates, and discussions.
- MapLight - See how money influences politics and politicians
- Open Secrets - Follow how money influences politics and politicians
- Gov Track - Track the activities of the US Congress
- Want to understand where Congress spends money? Check out Death & Taxes Poster