February 2022
If You’re Not at the Table, You’re on the Menu
Civic Engagement Beyond Voting helps you make yourself heard in Phoenix

It’s been worse than the worst of times. On top of the trauma of two years of a deadly pandemic, we are more politically polarized than ever. I think the most destructive issue we face today is the deepening mistrust and fear of each other. Many of us who were fired up and energized during the last two election cycles now feel disheartened, exhausted and even cynical about having any agency in making change for good. But just because we are exhausted and still cannot safely meet in person doesn’t mean we can’t continue to participate in our democracy.

Our elected officials are drafting and voting on bills every week, some of which are frighteningly harmful. At the time of this writing, bills are being proposed, again, to eliminate voting by mail and another to outlaw same-day voter registration. We elected these officials, and (theoretically) they answer  to us. If you feel strongly about an issue, you can speak up. Your voice can make a big difference, and there is help available to navigate the difficult process of being heard in the state Legislature.

Much is at stake for us as Arizonans in new laws being created relating to education, voting and public safety, yet we seldom have any idea what’s going on at the Capitol. Legislative committee meetings and votes are open to the public, but besides the ever-present lobbyists, who has time to go?

The system for remotely registering public comments on proposed legislation is called Request to Speak. If you register with the Legislature, you get access to the bills on the various agendas and can make comments to House and Senate committees without leaving home. Legislators voting on bills actually do pay attention to these comments from constituents, so through this system you can make a difference.

Of course, they don’t make it easy. You have to register in person at the Capitol for an RTS account, which gives access to the state website and the comment system. This is obviously impractical for most of us, but there’s a citizens group set up to help.

Civic Engagement Beyond Voting (CEBV) is an offshoot of Indivisible, and its purpose is to help voters engage with their legislators, because citizen participation makes our democracy strong. It will take your information and send a volunteer to register you for RTS. The service costs you nothing, and when you register through CEBV you also receive the Iyer Report, a weekly update on what’s happening at the Legislature that provides a concise description of each bill along with evaluation of its likely effects for Arizonans and whether it’s designed to benefit a special-interest group.

The Iyer Report came into being when Melinda Iyer began sharing her notes to herself about bills she felt warranted public scrutiny with others who also wanted to comment on bills. She compiles her weekly report after scouring many sites and reports to gain a broad perspective on how a bill will impact communities.

Iyer helped organize CEBV six years ago. Since 2017 the group has registered over 10,000 people on the RTS system, and has held over 500 online workshops on how to use it. There are also weekly Zoom Happy Hours hosted by CEBV in which participants can learn how to best use the RTS system and have an opportunity to discuss proposed bills.

“Decisions shouldn’t be made in a vacuum,” stated Iyer when I interviewed her last year, observing that voters have made real impact on the Legislature through the RTS system. Just in 2020 40 bills were introduced that would have limited voting rights in the state. Through RTS voters expressed enough opposition to these bills that all but five failed, and of those five, three were amended to support voting rights rather than limit them. The battle for voting rights continues into the current session, with twice the number of RTS users over last year.

Another example was House Bill 2222 in 2018, introduced to provide free menstrual products to women prison inmates. When the all-male House Rules Committee members balked at having to think about such a (for them) uncomfortable subject, citizens came together in the #LetItFlow campaign, promoted by CEBV. The bill failed to pass, but public outrage ultimately changed the policy anyway.

Once you are registered to comment on RTS, you’ll find that navigating it is not exactly intuitive. It is, after all, a government website! However, CEBV offers a video tutorial on its site to walk you through the steps of commenting on a specific bill. Many other groups offer video tutorials via YouTube as well, including the ACLU.

It can be a bit tedious to go through all the bills listed in the Iyer Report, but one thing that can make it easier and a lot more fun is to form a group where everyone is registered for RTS and spends an hour or so a week with laptops discussing and commenting on bills together. I formed such a group in 2019 and we enjoyed gathering every week for coffee, baked goods and political action. It worked well until Covid forced us to stop and the Legislature shut down. Groups of friends can organize to meet weekly to do their RTS commenting together on Zoom.

Our Legislature has grown ever more bold in recent years, pushing and passing harmful legislation that undermines the health and wellbeing of us all. We can work to dig ourselves out of the cynical apathy we all feel by paying attention to what our elected legislators are up to. Using your voice can make a difference, and we are fortunate to live in a country where that is still possible.

To find out more about Civic Engagement Beyond Voting and to receive the Iyer Report, visit CEBV.us. You can also follow the group’s activities on Facebook and Twitter.

Abby Brill is Associate Editor of 5enses.

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