Civic Life


Getting Government to Work for You

You may have been taught by a cult or high-demand group that your personal needs and ideas were unimportant, but mainstream America works best when we make our personal needs known and speak up about them. This section focuses on interactions with government and public agencies about your needs and wants.

Personal Problems and Government Help

No one can fix anything unless she knows help is needed, so calling attention to a need or problem is an essential first step. This kind of information—although sometimes officially called a “complaint” —is different from the sort of general complaining we all do from time to time (“Oh, it’s so hot!” or “Oh, I’m so tired!”). This is a statement about a need or a problem, directed to the person or department that has the authority to take the needed action to fix it. Here are some suggestions to help you complain effectively.

It’s important to
  • Direct your initial complaint to the appropriate person or department. This might be
    • an agency’s Customer Service department,
    • a unit of government,
    • an elected official, or
    • the agency that supervises a private company; for instance, the agency that sets rates for cable TV.
It will help if you can get the name of the person you need to contact, as well as his title or position.

If you are not sure where to start, you can
    • Check online. Look under “contact us” on the agency’s home page, or at specific departments for department heads’ contact information.
    • Call the agency’s main number and ask. Many phones now answer with an automated menu; but, if possible, choose the option to speak with a live person. Automated contact information may not include the information you need.
    • Calling a State or Federal Agency has more information about how to find people and tips about how to get hold of them.
  • Assemble the facts fully and accurately, including dates, times, places, and other supporting information, before you contact anyone.
  • Be mindful that the person you are speaking or writing to may be learning about the problem for the first time, even though you already have told several others about it.

If you are telephoning a complaint

It helps to put your story in writing beforehand for your own use. Doing this clarifies your thinking and may alert you to gaps in your information or an overemotional tone. If people perceive you as calm and reasonable, they will hear you better. Remember to

  • Have key documents handy so you can pass along addresses, phone numbers, account or order numbers, and other helpful information.
  • State the problem calmly, no matter how brusque the person you encounter, or how many times you must repeat yourself.
  • Think of yourself as a teacher. If someone doesn’t “get it,” try a different way of explaining. Use as many “I” messages as possible.
  • Listen carefully to the response.
  • Take notes, including the name of the person you are speaking to, and the date and time.
  • Repeat any commitments, instructions, or recommendations to make sure you have them right, spelling out names, email addresses, or phone numbers.
  • Ask when you should expect to hear back.

A written record of the dates and times you call, and any voice-mail messages you have left will come in handy if you have trouble getting through and decide to take the complaint to another person.

If you are writing or emailing a complaint

You are more likely to get positive attention if you,

  • Attach copies of supporting documents.
  • Remember to include your own contact information: name, address, phone, email.
  • Mention if others are joining in the activity, and explain that you are the contact person.
  • When you are writing on behalf of others, remember to send a copy of your letter to those on whose behalf you are writing.
  • When you are writing on behalf of an organization, be sure to state that information. Briefly describe the organization and explain your role in it.
  • Show the names of people to whom you are sending copies in the lower left-hand corner of the letter.
  • Thank your contact for her time and attention.
Allow a week to ten days to hear back
  • If you don’t get a response within a reasonable time, write again; or call to ask if the addressee has received the letter.
  • A note saying, “Thank you for writing. We are looking into it and will get back to you,” is a nice response, but not a decision.
  • If the response does not indicate when you might expect an answer, allow what you think is a reasonable time, then call or write again.
Following up on a complaint varies, depending on the mode of your complaint and the response you get.
  • You may get a satisfactory response immediately.
  • You may get an indefinite “I’ll check and get back to you” kind of response. If this happens, it’s wise to request a date by which you should expect an answer, confirm the name and contact information of the person you will hear from, and keep a record of this information.
  • A promise, however, only expresses intent. You will need to note whether the promised action really does happen by the date promised, and, if it does not, to inform the person who made the commitment.
  • You may get a referral to a different office, agency, or person. The referral should include complete contact information, including the name of the office and, if you’re referred to a person, his or her position, phone number, and email address, as well as the name of the person referring you.
  • To find out whether a referral to a different person or department is real help or just buck-passing, you will have to take the advice.
  • How long you are willing to keep trying a different department or another phone number is up to you.

Getting Help from Elected Officials

If you think you are not making progress, you might decide to raise the issue at another level. You can contact the representative of an elected official, either
  • an official with supervisory responsibility over the agency in question, such as a school board member, or
  • an official elected to a more general office who represents you, such as a city or county council member, mayor, governor, or your congressperson or senators.
Elected officials are practically always in campaign mode, seeking to gain or keep their constituents’ support in the next election. You can expect members of their staff to respond promptly to your contact and to do their best to help you.

The official will want to know that you are a constituent—a voter living in her electoral area. Most officials’ email sites collect this information automatically, but if you are writing a postal letter or sending an outside email, be sure to mention this fact and include your mailing address.
  • You can find office addresses and contact information on the official’s Web site. Call or email, briefly summarizing the issue.
  • You can reasonably expect a prompt response from a member of the official’s staff, but there is no way to predict what happens next.
    • Some staffers are diligent, caring, and competent, and will keep working to help you until they have exhausted all avenues.
    • Some are overworked and overwhelmed and will take only the most basic steps on your behalf.
    • Of course, some may be just plain uncaring or incompetent.
  • Be prepared to detail the steps you have taken to resolve the problem, including the names of people you have contacted and the dates, as well as the original problem.
  • Have copies of receipts, correspondence, and other related documents or information.
  • The importance and urgency of your problem may make a difference. A caller complaining about sloppy garbage collection may not command the same urgency as a caller in dire need of shelter or food stamps.
Once you make contact, it’s important to follow up as requested to the degree that you can. Even if you can’t provide requested documents or details, it helps to let people know that.


Voting is the way American citizens make many decisions—both large and small—about the course of government. Through voting, we choose thousands of officials, from neighborhood representatives to the U.S. president, all of whom participate in decisions that affect our lives. Elected officials, whom we have chosen based on our understanding of their ideas and abilities, decide matters ranging from repairing pavements to waging war.

Who We Vote For

Elected officials in the United States

  • make the laws that govern us;
  • control the budgets of the departments and agencies that keep the country running, from roads to schools to police;
  • set the taxes we pay to maintain these services; and
  • oversee the performance of the various entities they manage or supervise.
Government workers and private companies alike pay serious attention to the requests of elected officials whose powers can affect their activities.

Elected officials usually pay attention to their constituents’ opinions and work conscientiously to help constituents in any way they can. They are powerfully motivated to help their constituents, because if they displease too many voters, they will lose their jobs.

Terms of service for elected officials vary, depending on the office. Most serve terms of two or four years, but U.S. senators, for instance, serve six-year terms. Some states limit the number of terms an official may serve in the same position. Each state also has rules about choosing successors for elected officials who, for one reason or another, don’t serve out their terms.

Many elected officials are affiliated with a political party, an organization of people with similar ideas and opinions formed to elect candidates who will promote those policies.
  • Major political parties in the United States are the Democratic and Republican parties.
  • Other, smaller parties, such as the Libertarian Party and the Green Party, may also influence elections.
  • Small, local parties, like the Conservative Party of New York State, are locally influential in their areas of activity and may affect the outcome of general elections.
Some elected officials are “independents,” affiliated with no political party.

How, Where, and When to Vote

If you are a citizen, you probably have the opportunity to vote for some elected officials every year. And if an elected official is unhelpful or disrespectful, you have the opportunity to vote against him or actively to support an opponent.

Eligibility to vote
Eligibility to vote varies, depending on your state. In most states, voters must register beforehand in order to vote.
  • In general, every citizen over the age of 18 is eligible to vote. In some states, citizens who will be 18 by election day may register before their 18th birthday.
  • The key requirements to vote are proof of address, proof of citizenship, and proof of age.
  • Some states now offer “same-day” registration, which allows citizens to register and vote on election day. Their votes are not counted, however, until their eligibility is confirmed.
  • In most states, voters must register a party preference to vote in primaries (defined below, under Elections) because these elections determine who will represent each political party in the general election.
  • You need not express a party preference to vote in a general election.
  • Most states do not allow convicted felons to vote while they are in prison or on probation. Some states withhold voting privileges for convicted felons for a set time after they have completed their sentences.
  • Persons certified as mentally incapable are not eligible to vote.
  • It is against the law to prevent anyone from voting because of her race or religion, or to require prospective voters to pass a literacy test or to pay a tax to qualify to vote.
To check your eligibility, and for information about registering to vote, google “eligibility to vote,” plus your county or state.

Registering to vote

In the United States, your place of residence determines where you will vote and which candidates will represent you, from the smallest units of government, such as wards or districts, through city, county, and state elections to the national level.
  • Voters are organized in small local units called precincts, and in general they must vote at the designated polling place in each precinct. If you are a registered voter, you will get a notice telling you where to vote.
  • Not all candidates for office are city- or statewide. Ballots are localized to include only the officials who will represent you in your particular area.
  • If you will be out of town on election day, you may ask for an “absentee ballot,” which allows you to vote long distance. The requirements and process for absentee voting differ from state to state.
  • An increasing number of states offer early voting, which allows people to vote before the scheduled election day. This is a convenience for many who would find it difficult to get to the polls on election day. Early voters will often have to vote at a central location outside their neighborhoods.
  • Some states also allow mail-in voting, which allows voters to mail their ballots, rather than appearing in person.
  • Voters may vote only in one place. If you are a student in a different city from where you live, you may be able to vote in the precinct where your school is located (in which case, it’s illegal to vote in your home town), or you may have to vote absentee.


are held yearly in most states, with different offices up for election in different years. Elections are covered in local news and publicized by the candidates who are running.
  • Most elections are held on the first Tuesday in November.
  • Primary elections, when voters from each political party select the candidates who will represent that party in the main election, may be held a month or more before the main election. To vote in those elections, you must usually declare a party preference when you register.
  • Cities, states, and other voting districts may hold special elections when an official dies in office or resigns and must be replaced.

What Is There to Vote About?

The focus in most elections is on individuals who are running for offices that range from sheriff to President of the United States. In some counties, even judges are elected. Candidates competing against each other for elected posts usually try to draw distinctions between themselves and their opponents. They may differ on such issues as
  • whether, how much, and what to tax in their jurisdictions;
  • how to improve public schools, social services, or public safety;
  • ideologies such as abortion or gay marriage.
Candidates for state office may also focus on regional or occupational issues:
  • Should the city-dwellers or the agricultural industry pay more for water?
  • Should a large corporation get a tax break for relocating to an impoverished area of the state?
  • Which is fairer, an income tax or a sales tax?
Candidates for national office weigh in on all these kinds of issues, adding 
  • foreign policy,
  • defense, and
  • national issues such as Social Security
to the mix.

Choosing whom to vote for can be complicated and may require a great deal of thought.
  • It is unusual to find a candidate with whom you agree on every issue.
  • It is also unusual to find a candidate who doesn’t change positions on some issues once he is elected, although of course this change may be a sign of growth.
  • Sometimes the candidates are so unattractive that you may find yourself voting for one person simply to prevent another from winning.
You may also be asked to vote on questions such as
  • Bond issues that authorize the city, county, or state to borrow money for a particular purpose, such as building schools or transportation systems. Because the cost of this borrowing will be paid through taxes on everyone, many types of bonds require voters’ approval.
  • Referenda. Some states allow a legislative or other proposal to be put to a popular vote, called a referendum. If approved by the voters, the referendum becomes law. Approval of gay marriage, for instance, might in some states be put to a referendum.
  • Constitutional amendments. In many states, a majority of voters must approve changes to the state constitution—the state’s basic governmental structure. Issues like eligibility to vote, or the number of terms a legislator may serve, are examples of such changes.
You may feel that your vote is insignificant, one of hundreds or thousands, and unlikely to make any difference in the outcome of an election; but
  • Many local elections, like those for area city or county councils, draw relatively few voters; the margins of a few dozen votes may decide them.
  • Even the election for U.S. president can hang on a few hundred votes in a single state.
  • You will have to live with the outcome, so you might as well express your opinion.

Advocacy and Lobbying

If you feel strongly about a particular issue or candidate, you might want to do more than just vote. In fact, America depends heavily on individual involvement of all kinds to inform and encourage public debate on a host of topics, and to help bring about the desired result. Advocacy and lobbying are two key tools for influencing public policies.

Advocacy is working to promote particular interests or positions. Lobbying is pressing for specific actions by a governing body. For example, educating the public about the dangers of smoking is advocacy. Urging a legislator to vote to prohibit smoking in public places is lobbying.

Advocacy may mean

  • working as an individual, for instance, as a parent seeking a better educational placement for your child;
  • contributing money to an organization whose cause you support;
  • volunteering your time and energy to work for or against a cause; or
  • heading up a major effort on behalf of or against a cause.
Effective advocates are knowledgeable about
  • the situation in question;
  • the options for addressing it;
  • the resources needed to bring about the preferred outcome, including practical aspects such as costs, time, skills needed; and
  • how best to persuade the people or organization in authority to agree.

Speaking Up on Your Own

Here are some ways you can support or oppose a cause or program that’s important to you. Getting involved may mean combining your efforts with others in an organized group; or it may involve taking action individually.

Direct messages to elected officials

Elected officials pay attention to the preferences of the voters who elect them. Calls and emails that support or oppose a given program may not receive a personal answer, but they are carefully monitored and will count, sometimes heavily, in an official’s position on the issue.

To express your opinion on a proposed law, regulation, or program, you can call, write, email, or sometimes even text. Officials and their staffers take note of the opinions they receive and tally them up to get an idea of their constituents’ feelings.

  • Virtually all elected officials have email and postal addresses. You can Google the official’s name or title to find this information.
  • Many government Web sites have a “contact us” option that gives phone numbers and postal addresses, as well as a direct-from-the-site email option.
  • Many elected officials today have Facebook and/or Twitter pages.
  • Sometimes there will be a telephone number you can call to leave a “for” or “against” opinion.

If you belong to a union or other advocacy group, you may get messages urging you to contact elected officials about a particular issue. Often, these messages will include a form letter for you to send or a phone number to call. You are not obligated to do this, but it is an easy way to support the organization’s position.

Print and Internet media

Letters to the editor can be an effective way of making your voice heard. Editors will publish well-written letters on topics of public interest, both in print media and online. A letter to the editor can have a wide impact because it may resonate more with the people in charge than a private letter, and it may even influence officials who make decisions on the topic.  Readers may e-mail your letter to others so it gets a wider audience. If you feel strongly about an issue or want to correct an egregious error, you might want to try this approach.

A good letter to the editor includes

  • an opening that cites specifically the article or situation to which you are responding;
  • a central paragraph or two stating what you want to say about the article;
  • any useful information regarding your qualifications to dispute or comment on the topic;
  • disclosure of any personal relationship, such as being an employee of a company or agency involved, or a family member of a person involved; and
  • full contact information—your real name, postal address, email address, and phone number.

Letters should be as brief as possible, but vivid and specific. Keep the tone suitable for the publication you’re addressing—for instance, formal to a large newspaper with a national audience, ”snippy” to a sassy, counter-culture publication.

If the editor decides to publish your letter, you will receive a phone call or e-mail to verify its authenticity. The editor may cut or otherwise revise some material. Usually he will tell you this beforehand and you can withdraw the letter if you disapprove of the changes.

Uploading to the Internet

You can upload practically anything that expresses your personal positions or experiences to sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. There are no gatekeepers or editors to judge your work, and you need not worry about style or tone.

The downside to this approach is that few people in positions of influence are likely to see your communication, and you will have to work harder to get attention for it. You can post a video on YouTube, but unless you then send the link—with an attention-getting explanatory note—to whichever officials (or press) you want to see the video, they will not know about it. Busy professionals may or may not take the time to view your communication, and if they do, they may unconsciously judge it as much on technical quality as on content. Blurry or jerky camera work or sound may negate good reasoning.

Guidelines for Checking Out Advocacy and Lobbying Organizations

Full-time advocacy or lobbying isn’t realistic for most people. It is more practical and efficient to find an organization that supports the cause or program you’re interested in. You can then join them and engage at the level that fits your interest and availability.

Past experience in a high-demand group or cult may leave you reluctant to throw yourself into a cause. Indeed, some advocacy groups can become very extreme, and you should view them with caution. Others may be poorly organized or managed, making it difficult to work with them.

There is no need to push yourself to do anything you don’t want to do (see Groups for some general guidelines). You can take your time, engage gradually, and stop if you begin to feel uncomfortable.

Thousands of advocacy organizations are active in the United States today; they range from small, local groups getting together over neighborhood issues to nationwide organizations with millions of members seeking to influence key national policies. In a broad, general way, one might sort them into neighborhood groups, educational/charitable organizations, political organizations, and lobbies. A single organization may have branches that engage in all of these activities.

Local neighborhood groups, like those formed to advocate for better street lighting or school improvements, are usually informal and don’t have set rules, budgets, or agendas.
  • Most of these groups follow basic democratic procedures, such as giving everyone a chance to speak. Decisions are made by consensus.
  • As the group grows, consensus may give way to votes.

Larger, formally organized groups have a more formal structure, including 

  • a Board of Directors,
  • written budgets,
  • operating rules (often called “by-laws”),
  • paid staff, and
  • programs planned well into the future.

You can usually learn more about these larger groups by checking out their Web sites. A basic Web site for any educational or advocacy group should

  • plainly state the group’s mission,
  • describe its programs,
  • list its senior staff and their qualifications, and
  • list its Board of Directors, with brief background information on each member.

Checking out charitable/educational organizations

Charitable and educational organizations and religions have a unique status: Contributions to them are tax-deductible.

  • This tax-deduction privilege is accorded on the grounds that their services are beneficial to the country.
  • Charities and educational organizations must submit detailed information about their missions and programs to achieve this status.
  • Tax-deductible status is no indication of the quality of an organization’s programs or management, however.
  • You can find information about the finances and activities of many charities online.

Many charitable organizations lobby in some ways on some occasions. They are allowed to set aside a small portion of their incomes for this purpose. Contributions for lobbying costs are not tax-deductible, and the organizations must notify donors about the portion of their contributions that is used for lobbying.

Checking out political organizations

Checking out political organizations is a different matter.  Such organizations may be 
  • Committees formed to elect a specific candidate to a given office, such as city council, state legislator, or governor
  • Organizations that support candidates whose views on a particular issue agree with theirs
  • Political parties
  • Good-government groups that study issues and endorse positions, rather than individuals
  • Advocates for a particular group, such as senior citizens
  • Advocates for or against a specific cause, such as animal rights or handgun control
Contributions to political organizations are not tax-deductible.

Candidates for national offices must submit campaign finance reports to comply with the Federal Elections Commission. Those reports are available to the public.

Political organizations may be harder to evaluate than charitable organizations.
  • Some, like those promoting a candidate for office, may exist only for a few months or years.
  • Others, such as the major political parties, are large, stable associations.
  • Some political organizations exist solely to raise money that they pass on to candidates who meet their conditions. These are often called political action committees (PACs).
  • Others convene study commissions, conduct surveys, and publish recommendations on important issues of the day.
Information about some politically active organizations is available online.

Fundraising is vital for most advocacy and lobbying groups, although it is more critical for some than for others. Here are basic guidelines for fundraising in mainstream culture:

  • Nobody in mainstream America is required to give to any cause.
  • Nobody should be pressured to give, or to give more than she wants to. People accustomed to complying with group demands may feel uncomfortable saying “No” to requests for money, but learning to do so is part of daily American life. Anyone who continues to press you after a clear “No” is out of line.
  • Nobody will feel surprised or hurt if you refuse to give, or to give more. Your “I’ve already given what I can,” or “No, I don’t support that organization” should end the discussion. You may feel uncomfortable about making such statements, but the alternative is to let yourself be manipulated into doing what you don’t want to do.
  • Once you make a contribution, whatever the organization, you can expect repeated additional solicitations by mail, email, or phone. The askers don’t really expect you to give every time you’re asked. You, and no one else, determine whether, when, and how much to give.
  • Many educational or advocacy organizations offer “memberships” at a fixed price. If you can’t afford the price but want to support them, you can still give a lesser amount. Legitimate organizations will happily accept whatever you offer.


, too, takes many forms. Some lobbying is informal.
  • If you run into the president of the PTA at the supermarket, you may stop for a moment to express support for or opposition to a project currently under consideration. Or
  • You, as a citizen, may want to write to your congressperson and senators to let them know how you feel about a proposed change in the law.
A more structured form of lobbying occurs when
  • An organization representing many, perhaps thousands, of members formally adopts a position on a given issue.
  • The officers and members of the organization then meet with key legislators to express the position and urge support for it.
  • The organization also may encourage its members to contact their legislators about supporting the position.
  • Many organizations hire full-time representatives stationed in state capitals and in Washington, D.C., to guard their interests and promote legislation that is advantageous to them.
Frequently, the competing interests of different organizations lead to a struggle. For example, there’s a recurring competition between U.S. sugar growers, who favor restrictions on the amount of sugar imported, and food-manufacturing companies, which want to abolish existing limits in order to lower the price of sugar. 

Representatives and senators from sugar-growing states will support the growers, while legislators from states where food manufacturers operate will work to abolish the limits.

Jury Duty

Service as a juror is the only form of participation in American government that is required by law. A jury is a group of citizens who are sworn in to decide impartially the facts of a given matter and issue a decision in a court case.

  • Juries range in size from six to twelve or more people. (Judges may include a couple of “alternate” jurors who can step in if a juror falls ill or is unable to complete his service for some other reason.)
  • Jurors are chosen from the lists of registered voters, licensed drivers, and other residents in each jurisdiction. Usually, many more people are summoned to jury duty than the court expects to need.
  • If summoned, you are legally required to attend on the date or dates named. Usually there is a procedure, explained on the summons, for you to change the date if you need to.
  • Some jurisdictions allow jurors to check in by phone to see if they are needed. Others require jurors to appear in person on the appointed date.
  • Once you arrive at the courthouse as a potential juror, you check in and wait until a judge requests a “panel.” The panel is a random selection of many more than the number of jurors actually needed. The large number of people allows for a detailed selection process.
  • In the courtroom, the judge screens the panel to eliminate people with conflicts of interest (such as relatives of someone who is a witness in the case) or connections that might make them partial to one side or another. For example, a police officer might favor the testimony of another police officer over the testimony of someone accused of a crime.
  • Usually, the judge will explain how long the trial is expected to take and will excuse anyone who cannot be away from a business or other critical activity for that length of time.
  • Lawyers for both sides, as well the judge, are allowed to screen potential jurors.
  • This elimination process continues until the correct number of jurors is selected.
If you are not selected to serve on a jury during the time stated on the summons, you have fulfilled your legal obligation simply by sitting around and not being chosen. If you are seated on a jury, however, you are on duty until the trial is finished. This means that you are expected to 
  • report at the time specified each day the trial is in session;
  • listen carefully to the testimony;
  • abide by the judge’s instructions; and
  • when the presentation of evidence is completed, deliberate with the other members of the jury until the group reaches a decision about the facts of the case.
Trials may take only a day or two, or they may run for months, depending on the case.

Payment for jury service depends on local law and customs. Jurisdictions may pay a nominal fee per day of service. Some employers offer paid leave for employees on jury duty.