Disenfrenchised voters can still have a say in politics

You can still use your voice. Your vote still counts. If the men and women you preferred were not voted into office, you still have the opportunity to make an impact. There is no need to resort to violent protest or a barrage of spam e-mail. In fact, the best way to contact your local congressperson is the old-fashioned way: pen, paper, envelope and stamp.

The best example in recent history of the true impact of the consequences of ignoring one’s constituency occurred during the Clinton years in the Texas congressional election of 1994. Texas gun-control laws governing concealed handguns were pushed through while Democratic congressmen ignored their constituents’ insistence on the right to bear arms, and incumbents were routed in one of the largest changeovers of elected officials in Texas history.

And, of course, there will always remain the famous and often-told anecdote of the woman who wrote to President Ronald Reagan that she needed money for food. Reagan responded by sending the woman a check from his personal bank account. While balancing his checkbook, Reagan later noted that the check hadn’t been cashed. When he inquired as to the reason why, the woman responded that she wanted to keep the check from him as a memento. Reagan responded immediately by writing another check so the woman would have one check to cash and another to keep.

While the story is used most often to reflect Reagan’s generosity, it also proves the power of the written word in the hands of the American people. Our congress depends on us to let them know how we think and what policies we want enacted, but it is up to us to choose the most respectful and fruitful paths to get our ideas across.

So often, as reflected in the press, minorities seem to depend on grandstanding tactics, spokespeople and opinion polls to represent their wishes. While many of us have the same needs for equal rights, we often aren’t able to band together to push through the needed legislation to support ourselves. Observant, religious Jews who keep a Saturday Sabbath, for example, will often have as much trouble finding work as blacks. Yet, outrageous behavior and anti-Semitic statements made by black Democrat public figures Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson have alienated the Jewish Democrat sector from the black Democrats and prevented the two groups from banding together to effect more positive policies in the Equal Opportunities Act. This, in turn, has caused the majority public to ignore both constituencies.

The main problem in American politics is that we attach too many conditions to our offers for support instead of concentrating on common ground. To effect true change, the favor-bartering system must be declared dead. The best way to proceed is through grassroots efforts focusing on single issues. While this method may be cumbersome and time-consuming, it allows the proponents to garner the most support for a cause, because it allows individuals to go out on a limb for a cause they support and eschew those they don’t.

Even in our electronic age, human contact is paramount. While John Kerry was marching through black church congregations collecting preachers’ endorsements in Florida, President Bush was passing out water and foodstuffs to flood victims and visiting their shelters. In addition, a study that came out just before the elections showed that Republican voters responded to Bush’s face psychologically as they would a friend who exchanged a warm smile, while Democrat voters viewed Kerry as a sunset — pretty, but not particularly special. Many people who voted for Bush did so because they saw him as an emotionally intelligent person and a confident leader.

No matter what your cause may be, most important is getting the message across respectfully. Organizing letter-writing campaigns, petitions and actually inviting elected officials to campus to engage in a dialogue — even if the representative is not from the party one prefers — are still the most effective means of getting attention. If a representative fails to respond to letters or declines invitations to speak, one always has the option to inform the press that the call or invitation has gone unanswered, and the press should be informed in such a case. The last thing any politico wants is bad press.

Bonnie Altman, The Daily Cougar, University of Houston.