At times, it seems that the political tension surrounding the 2016 general election cycle has eclipsed the significance of local government, and how change can often spark from the ground up. It's natural to undergo periods of apprehension about the influence of your individual vote - or how to bring attention to a political issue that has been overlooked in the general election campaign. Don't let these frustrations persuade you into inaction! Instead, let's recognize the influence of other forms of democratic participation where your voice can be heard such as ballot initiatives, local and state governments, community advocacy and even individual research. Here are three ways you can make your voice heard, beyond choosing a presidential candidate:
1. Weigh in on Ballot Initiatives
Regardless of how you feel about either candidate, you can certainly influence a variety of political measures, including food and agricultural issues, if your state incorporates ballot initiatives. Ballot initiatives are seen as a form of direct democracy - they serve as opportunities for constituents to engage in a public vote on matters typically considered by statewide legislatures and local governments. Currently, 26 states (in addition to Washington DC) offer ballot initiatives. Initiatives are able to create, change or repeal state laws or amend state constitutions. A general benefit of initiatives is that they bring government attention to specific issues that may not have been previously considered at that level.
Food policy has been largely overlooked in this cycle, but, as examples, these select ballot initiatives give food and agricultural policy a seat at the table:
Massachusetts Minimum Size Requirements for Farm Animal Containment, Question 3 (2016)
This law would define the minimum size requirement for animal confinement and would prohibit the sale of the animal if the confinement prevents the animal from lying down, standing up, fully extending its limbs, or turning around freely. Supporters of this law argue that these new confinement requirements would be a significant improvement for animal welfare, while opponents stress that the new requirements would raise the cost of eggs and pork, making it difficult for low-income individuals to afford these products.
Oklahoma Right to Farm Amendment, State Question 777 (2016)
This amendment, which will appear on the November 8, 2016 ballot as a legislatively referred constitutional amendment, would make restricting or regulating laws within the farming industry more vulnerable to lawsuits. Supporters assert that the amendment would increase farmers' ability to defend themselves against lawsuits that may cause detriment to the industry at large and allow consumers to determine best farming practices through free market competition. Opponents emphasize that this amendment would inevitably be used to prevent both state and local governments from passing laws that would support small farmers, and that the amendment would give large corporations an unfair advantage over small farms.
Past Ballot Initiatives Show Impact
Ballot initiatives' ability to influence higher-level change can be seen in the 2008 general election. Proposition 2, also known as the Standards for Confining Farm Animals, appeared on the November 4 ballot in California and was subsequently approved with 63.5 percent of the constituency voting to pass the statute. Though the state experienced resistance to the initiative's implementation in early 2015, the United States Court of Appeals ultimately upheld the constitutionality of the initiative and it remained in effect. This initiative also served as a model for other states, as it was emulated on the Massachusetts ballot this year.
2. Get Involved in Local Government!
Getting involved in advocacy efforts on the local and state level is equally as important as participating on the national level. In fact, political decisions made on the state and local levels can create national change.
Vermont's GMO labeling law aptly demonstrates this. The bill, initiated within the Vermont state government, has since caused political reverberations nationwide due to resistance from large food distributors and manufacturers who stress that labeling products for just one state drives up the costs for consumers throughout the country. President Obama ultimately overturned the law, instead opting for the federal government to set up its own standards for bioengineered food. Politicians and constituents in Vermont who want to see the law closest to its original form continue to work hard on the state level to see this bill through.
Legislation does not have to reach the national level to have a significant impact. In 2012, New York City implemented a food procurement policy that set nutritional and health standards for all food provided by the city in environments ranging from schools and senior centers to correctional facilities. It applies to approximately 250 million meals served annually, and is a prime example of policy on the regional level that is able to enact far-reaching health and nutritional benefits for all New Yorkers.
There is one way to guarantee that your voice certainly will not be heard - not voting. Frustrations aside, there is more to the ballot than a specific candidate. There are 34 seats in the Senate up for re-election: 24 held by Republicans and 10 held by Democrats. Look into how members of Congress have voted on food policy issues in the past. Show up to the polls prepared, having done your research on the Senate election, as well reviewing everything included on your state's ballot. Most of all: get out there and vote!
Image "I Voted" by Anna Vignet on Flickr used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.