A Bare-Bones Guide to Civic Engagement

It's no secret that the American public is tragically disengaged from public life; our voter turnout numbers in presidential elections are tragically low, and in off-year elections, they're abysmal. Americans are also less informed than their peers in developed countries, and they are also less satisfied with their government officials. Many of America's societal ills, such as gun violence, mass incarceration, a faulty electoral system, and much else, are issues that seem to plague America alone.

The causes of these things are well-contested, but this page won't enter into that debate.

This page is designed to give its readers a few easy, low-cost ways to become more informed and more engaged with public life, a partial solution, hopefully, to many of these problems; regardless of who is in power, and how stressful the news might be at times, being in the thick of public life, and having agency in that sphere's decision making, always has its rewards. 

#1: Subscribe to good newspapers!

Amidst all the cries of "Fake News!" from both sides of the aisle, there are still myriad good places from which you can get your news and commentary.

The Washington Post offers free digital subscriptions that work on computers, mobile devices, and tablets to anyone with a .edu, .mil, or .gov email address. Philly.com, home to the web content of the Inquirer and Daily News, is always free.

For Cornell students, The New York Times and Financial Times offer free digital subscriptions as well. There's also a great local paper called The Cornell Daily Sun, which is free in print and online. I hear their photo editor is pretty nice.

#2: Register to vote, and then rock it!

The requirements differ slightly in every state, but as a general rule, you can vote if you...

1. Are a U.S. citizen, 2. Meet your state's residency requirements, 3. Are 18 years old on or before Election Day (you can register at 17 so long as you turn 18 by the election!), and 4. Register to vote by your state's voter registration deadline.

Some states, like Pennsylvania and New York, allow you to register online, but others still have you send in a paper form. For help with both kinds of registration, click here. For absentee ballot requests, click here. For election reminders (you know, for the smaller ones,) click here. Want to help more? Get a friend or two registered!

Be sure to do your research on candidates before heading to the polls! Know what you're voting for before you vote.

#3: Keep in touch with your representatives!

One way to make sure you're satisfied with how your representatives are doing, is to check in and make sure they're adequately representing you! This applies to all levels of government; from the President, to your Senators, to your state representatives, to your mayors, to your aldermen and county commissioners. Go to town halls, call in as much as you see fit, and make sure, going off #2, to voice your opinions at the ballot box also.

When calling higher level government officials, try calling both the DC numbers and their district offices; often times, if one isn't responsive, another will be.

#4: Donate to causes you care about!

One easy way to grapple with the concept of infinity is to try and imagine how many interest groups exist in America, both within Washington, and without. 

Such groups though do have important function; they have the ability, through capital and other means, to get the ear of representatives when individual people sometimes cannot. If a group aligns with your views, and you can spare some money, help their cause; they'll try to help yours. 

For the sake of nonpartisanship I won't make suggestions, except for one: if you care about the journalistic work that myself and my colleagues do, consider donating to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

#5: Know that this is just the start.

There are so many ways to take action in American life, it would be almost a frivolous task to list all of them here, and not all of them are best suited for everyone. If you have a goal for public life, however, be tenacious in pursuit of it, and use whatever methods are the most effective to achieve it. Do your research, stay tuned in as long as you can do so healthily, and don't give up; change comes slowly here, but it does indeed come. 

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