Six weeks ago if I had told you that Tulip Festival and every other spring event would be canceled – and perhaps moved online to a full virtual experience – you would likely have been highly skeptical.
If I had told you that you wouldn’t be allowed to be in a place with more than five people present, let alone a giant crowd, that you would be unable to attend local meetings in person or have to avoid stopping by your neighbor’s house by a chat you might have called me crazy.
But here we are.
And not only are all of those things fun and community building, but they are also the foundations of what we know as “Retail Politics” – the backbone of local elections. Candidates running for local office expected a very busy spring filled with nightly events, meeting people, sharing messages, hoping to identify likely voters to connect with.
But that can’t happen right now.
There are many people reading this who have just let out a sigh of relief. Thank goodness we don’t have that awkward encounter at the neighborhood block party, some stranger stopping by my house when I’m trying to eat dinner, a person trying to engage me in a brief discussion on a complicated topic at the family festival while my kids yank on my arm to go to the bouncy-bounce.
Others reading this – I’m looking at you, candidates – might feel a slight surge of panic. If I’m a newbie, how am I going to get their name out and let people know about my life experience? If I’m an incumbent, how will I share my accomplishments and convince voters to return me to office?
In other words, how do we get information on candidates now that we can’t get it in the same way we’ve done for years?
This election is and has to be completely different. Clearly the presidential election will be different. The large events that have been the hallmark of presidential campaigns in recent memory just can’t happen anymore. (Though the president says he’ll be holding “massive” rallies). People in campaigns are looking at different ways to connect with voters. States are looking at different ways of having people vote.
But that’s not even the important part. The important part is the voter themselves, you and me, are starting to really look at how we vote and how to get information about candidates.
I don’t want people coming to my door right now. I’ve barely missed voting in an election since I’ve been able to vote. I’m not totally comfortable going to a polling place to vote. Presidential elections will continue, but local elections rely on retail politics. Those hyper local events, going door to door, basically meeting people face to face. We can all access absentee ballots right now, but is that enough?
In our current climate, campaigns on every level are forced to look at how to connect with voters when it’s no longer possible to connect in the same ways that we have in the past. Voters are starting to question if the way we have voted and connected with candidates in the past is worth the risk. While this is a very difficult issue and situation to deal with, I think it is an important opportunity for our society to really look at what our civic needs are and how we meet them.
If you are a voter, how do you want to get your information about a candidate? What is the best way for a campaign to contact you and share information with you? How would you feel most comfortable letting a candidate know that you support them? What are your concerns with the different modes of contact?
If you aren’t a voter, why not? What has prevented you from voting? If you were to consider becoming a voter, thinking about the questions above would be especially helpful.
If you are involved in campaigns, either as someone who has worked on one, organized one, or as a candidate, what is the best way to communicate your message? How do you prefer to connect with voters? How do you see that changing now? What do you wish would change and what do you hope would stay the same?
Until each of these groups have a real conversation, separate from political party, candidates, campaigns, I think we will continue in a downward spiral of less and less civic engagement. And I think that the less civically engaged our society is, the worse it is for our communities.
So take a minute and think about it.
Think about how you want your information from candidates, and not just candidates you like, but even more importantly, the candidates you don’t like. The real path to civic engagement is the opportunity for all sides to present their case for your vote. If there were no security concerns, how would you ideally wish to vote? How often do you want to vote?
Having this conversation could be one of the most important things for our society, because it means that we are prioritizing civic engagement as a community, which I believe could lead to real, long term solutions to many of our problems. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.