The Importance of Civic Participation

Chapter 2:
The Importance of Civic Participation

“For we put the power in the people.”
—William Penn

Your Contribution to Government

You are a citizen of the United States, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a county, a school district, and a municipality that is a township, a city or a borough. In a democracy that means you are the government because you have the right to take part in every form of public policy, directly or through elected representatives. As a citizen of Pennsylvania you have the right and ability to participate in all aspects of public affairs.

Some of your obligations as a citizen are clearly spelled out by government: obeying laws, paying taxes, registering to vote, serving on juries, and registering with the selective service. But most ways to get involved with government are voluntary—it is up to you to participate and you must take the first steps. The responsibility is yours because it requires actions only you can do: be informed, vote, consider the rights and interests of others, behave in a civil manner, and take responsibility for your own actions.

Citizens often use government to address pressing issues, fix problems, avoid future problems, provide a legal process, create public policy, and provide needed services such as public safety and transportation. It’s not just your participation, it is neighbors working together to make your community a better place to live and work.

This process of being involved with government is often called citizenship. There are many ways to define citizenship and to practice its meaning. For instance, Pennsylvania’s Academic Standards for Civics and Government defines citizenship as:

“Status of being a member of a state, one who owes allegiance to the government and is entitled to protection by and from the government.”

Citizenship brings rights and responsibilities. This chapter provides ways for you to participate in government and to become a better citizen.

How Government Helps You Get Involved

Elected officials at every level of government are your representatives and they need to know what you think. Many hold town meetings where you can ask questions, routinely send newsletters, have active web pages, or use surveys to understand the expectations of the people who vote.

Government must also:

  • Hold regular elections
  • Show what they do, how they spend money, and make decisions (this is called transparency in government)
  • Hold office holders and appointed officials accountable for their actions, performance, and decisions
  • Provide access to information to those who request it
  • Include citizens in local or state government efforts such as
    • Planning
    • Emergency operations
    • Public Safety
    • Transportation
    • Education

But here is the hard part: Not all voters want the same things or will want to do the same thing in a different way. Elected officials represent many points of view and will hear many opinions. Responding to citizen involvement is difficult when no one agrees about what to do. Still, new technology and information networks offer great ways to share information with voters and to seek their response.

Your obligation to help elected officials does not end with the ballot box; representatives need to respond to citizens after the election. Government works best when it is easy for citizens to be heard.

The state legislature has passed laws that help citizens learn about governments.  Some examples are shown in the box below. Each of these laws is intended to make government more open to the people. Learn more about these laws and how to use them.

Individuals, communities and businesses need to understand government processes. To help you, government provides many valuable resources and sources of information. The websites in the following box provide examples of information made public by one city and one county in Pennsylvania.

The First Rule: Be Informed

To be a good citizen starts by being an informed citizen. This is becoming more difficult as officials and voters today must consider issues and make decisions that can be hard to understand. Just understanding the many existing laws, regulations, and codes in Pennsylvania can be overwhelming. Elected officials, many of whom are volunteers in Pennsylvania, must now understand finance, human resources, environmental laws, and engineering, legal, and management issues, to name a few.

Take the following (very short) civics test to measure your understanding of government in Pennsylvania:

 

To be informed means to do two things. First, locate the best information. Do this by:

  • Finding and using many sources of information
  • Reviewing differing viewpoints, interpretations, opinions, and political positions
  • Accessing those references (newspapers, magazines, journals, books and the Internet) that work best for you
  • Studying tables, graphs, diagrams, and maps
  • Visiting and observing working government (meetings, cable TV coverage, etc.)
  • Learning how to use the reference section of libraries.

Second, study and analyze the information you collect. Figure out on your own or through discussions with others:

  • Which information is relevant and non-relevant
  • How to separate fact from opinion
  • Ways to organize evidence to answer questions
  • How to collect and organize information, data and other references.

How You Can Get Involved

An informed citizen may want to become involved in local or state government in Pennsylvania. The first step is to communicate with officials. You can:

  • Share concerns and make suggestions
  • Give feedback regarding new or different rules or laws
  • Contact local elected officials about a specific need in your community

A second step is direct participation. You can:

  • Attend town hall meetings and debates sponsored by community organizations
  • Attend council meetings
  • Speak at a public meeting
  • Serve on a board, committee, or task force.

Most communities need volunteers to serve on committees, advisory boards, and councils. Examples of groups that depend upon citizens include:

  • Auditing
  • Planning and zoning
  • Economic development
  • Management
  • Parks and recreation
  • Planning.

Start your participation using the topics in the box below. Attend a council meeting, a school board meeting, or a planning session. Learn how government works by watching how things get done. Share your experiences with others.

The Role of Political Parties in Pennsylvania

Political parties continue to play a major role in Pennsylvania even though you do not need to belong to a party to vote or to run for office. Political parties are groups of people who tend to share the same views about government and register as a member of that party. Most citizens in Pennsylvania belong to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party. Others belong to one of nine other political parties registered in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Some citizens remain “independent”—meaning not linked to any political party. In July 2014 a total of 8,235,106 Pennsylvanians were registered to vote. Of these, 4,089,712 were Democrats, 3,029,392 were Republicans, 461,687 belonged to other political parties, and 654,315 were Independents.

Political parties become especially important to voters during primary elections where candidates are chosen to run for office representing a specific party. After the primary election these candidates will campaign for your vote in the next general or municipal election.

Political parties mobilize party members for campaigns and elections. To learn more about political parties in Pennsylvania visit the web sites shown in the box (this list includes all political parties in Pennsylvania that have a website).

To see how candidates from each party did in recent elections in Pennsylvania and in each county go to www.electionreturns.state.pa.us.

Unless you are recruited, you may need to contact a political party to begin volunteer work. There are levels of participation that start with simply registering as a member of the party, giving money to support candidates, volunteering to work in political campaigns, to serving as a paid campaign worker or party staff member. Perhaps the highest level of participation is to run for elected office.

Voter turnout is a key element in measuring citizen involvement. Political parties usually have a “get out the vote” plan and work hard to keep members involved.

Government in a Digital World

Digital Government

Digital government can take many forms. It is as simple as an electronic newsletter or as complex as voting systems. A digital government uses technology to inform its citizens, work toward change, and store/analyze information.

While government can itself use technology (examples include the 911 call emergency system or use of GPS to monitor road conditions), many times local governments are responding to their community of technology users (computers, apps, internet, social media, and mobile communications). More schools are using bring-your-own-devices and teaching digital literacy. Local governments can tap into this network to keep residents informed and to collect information of interest to officials.

Using the technology interests and literacy of its citizens, government can introduce topics that shape communities, can collect information almost instantly, and can provide resources to residents that help them make decisions.

The basic tool remains the internet and websites. Examples of websites that will interest you follow:

Examples of Websites Related to Government
OrganizationWebsite
White House http://www.whitehouse.gov
United States Senate http://www.senate.gov
United States House of Representatives http://www.house.gov
United States Department of State http://www.state.gov
Federal Election Commission  http://www.fec.gov
Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov
Pennsylvania State Government http://www.pa.gov/
Governor’s Office http://www.governor.state.pa.us/
Pennsylvania Academic Standards for Civics http://www.pdesas.org/Standard/Views#0|777|0|0

Voting in Pennsylvania

Voting in our democracy is a basic right, along with the secret ballot. There are three kinds of elections in Pennsylvania: Primary, General (or Municipal), and Special.

Election: General

When: The Pennsylvania general election is held the Tuesday after the first Monday in November of even-numbered years.

Who is Elected:

  • Governor
  • Lieutenant Governor
  • State Attorney General
  • State Auditor General
  • State Treasurer
  • General Assembly Representatives (entire membership)
  • General Assembly Senators (1/2 of membership)

In addition, federal elections are held at the same time but every four years. This four-year general election asks voters to choose a president, congressional representatives, and congressional senators.

The general election may also have Ballot Questions. In 2008 Pennsylvania voters were asked to approve or disapprove a proposal to borrow $400,000,000 to improve water and sewer systems. The question was approved (62 percent in favor and 38 percent opposed). It passed in 66 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties.

Election: Primary

When: Primary elections in Pennsylvania are held on the third Tuesday of May in all years except Presidential election years when it is held the fourth Tuesday of April. Pennsylvania’s primary elections are “closed” meaning you must be a registered member of a specific political party to vote in that party’s primary.

Election: Special

When: Special elections are called when, for instance, someone in office cannot continue to serve. All registered voters in that district can vote in a special election. For example, if there is a vacancy in the General Assembly, the presiding officer of the House will tell (issue a writ) the proper county board (or boards) of election and the Secretary of the Commonwealth about this vacancy within ten days. The needed election will then be held at either the next primary, municipal or general election if that election is at least 60 days after the writ is issued. Or, an earlier date that is still at least 60 days after the writ can be set.

For members of councils or other elected officials in cities, boroughs, and townships, after an interim appointment, special elections are set up the same way as for the General Assembly. Here, a writ for the special election needs to be issued and the special election must be held on the date set by the writ, or within 60 days after the writ was issued, or after the need to replace an official happened.

More information can be found at www.votespa.com including instructions on how to register to vote in Pennsylvania, information about each type of election, and where you should go to vote.

A Checklist to Help You Get Involved

Now that you know you can make a difference, how will you participate? Follow this four step process to practice your citizenship.

Understand and hold accountable your government

You have the right to be informed, to evaluate government, and to be heard. You can participate at all levels in political decision making.

□ Be an informed citizen

Democracy depends upon informed citizens and their ability to make good choices among the many options available to us. The best way to stay informed is to read newspapers, magazines, websites, and information provided by government and organizations. Try to read as many sources as possible, learning the many views. Follow state and local issues as carefully as national issues.

□ Track rules, bills, plans and other ongoing processes

Be clear on the process for passing state laws, local ordinances, and public policy. Follow the debates, the positions, roll call votes, public hearings, and polling. Learn and use the websites that help track the progress of a bill. Use the sponsor’s web site to gain additional information and watch the debates on PCN on cable television.

□ Write letters or editorials

Almost every newspaper in Pennsylvania has an editorial page or other section where they print letters from their readers. Writing such a letter gives you the power of the press to express an opinion, to offer a solution to a problem, or to persuade others to your point of view. You can also learn by reading letters from other readers.

Be and Stay Engaged

□ Vote

Your number one responsibility as an informed citizen is to vote. In Pennsylvania you must register to vote. To do this in Pennsylvania you must be a citizen of the U.S. for at least one month before the next election, must be a resident of Pennsylvania and the district where you will vote, and be at least 18 years of age on or before the next election. Register to vote and keep your registration current by regularly voting. You can get specific help at www.votespa.com provided by the Department of State.

□ Volunteer

There are many ways to participate in your community and its government. A quick review of the Guide to Human Services in the blue pages of your phone book can help you begin to find service organizations of interest to you. You can also volunteer in a political campaign or to help at the polls on election day. The most important goal is to help others. Be involved and make your community a better place.

□ Contact elected officials

Your representatives want to hear from you. E-mail, write a letter, make a phone call, or visit his/her office. Respond to surveys, polls and attend town meetings or on-line sessions.

□ Be active in politics

What are your political beliefs? You can find out by speaking with others, debating issues, or Google “political spectrum tests” and try some of the tests. Try more than one test and read opinions by others. Read Internet blogs and follow and compare what people are writing. Which groups do you most agree with?

Join and Be a Leader

□ Participate in public meetings

The Pennsylvania Legislature, municipal and county governments and other elected officials hold public meetings and hearings before deciding to pass laws or take actions that will have an impact on you. Public hearings are often held at locations across Pennsylvania to discuss state laws. Opportunities are given to citizens at these public meetings to voice their questions or concerns about a specific topic or proposed law. Use the web to find out when public hearings will be held in your area.

□ Serve on committees, commissions, and task forces

Governments are always recruiting volunteers to serve on committees that plan and advise on recreational services, zoning decisions, public safety needs, transportation, water and sewer services, and public works (public buildings, parks and roads) to name just a few. Other forms of government, often called an “authority,” serve as the administrator for services such as water, sewer, parking garages, stadiums, or regional airport projects. They, too, need volunteers to serve on commissions and task forces.

□ Run for office

To run for office in Pennsylvania you must be a U.S. citizen, be a certain age (this will change by type of elected official) and have resided in the election district for at least one year before the election.

You must register to run for office by filing with the appropriate office in your county, municipality, school district, or Pennsylvania if running for state office. Sometimes you will need to collect signatures to run. Expect to file campaign expense reports and other filing requirements. The Pennsylvania Department of State website has information on what you need to run for office and the deadlines for filing at the following link: https://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/running_for_office/12704

Help others get involved

□ Connect with others with the same interests

There are hundreds of groups in Pennsylvania that support as many interests. Most have websites to explain their purpose and mission, but all have information to share. Common interests might be political, environmental, public service, community support, support of specific public policies, business interests, economic development, or many others. Again, check the blue pages of the phone book and websites to learn about the possibilities.

□ Join an organization

One way to connect with others is to join an organization that promotes your interests. If there is no chapter of an organization of interest in your area, start one. These groups might be focused on a specific issue (animal rights, land use, strategic planning), or share a general goal of promoting good government. You can search the internet to find organizations of interest.

You can start your search by following these suggestions: