Holding Politicians Accountable
By Kim Bobo
The elections of 1994 demonstrated the power
of constituent organizing (mostly done by the right wing), the dissatisfaction
of many voters with the current work of elected officials, and the importance
of participating in the electoral process. In very few races were housing
issues even discussed, except in the general context of slashing government
spending. Now in the aftermath of the elections, we see low-income housing
We can mourn the state of affairs, or we can use the elections as a
wake-up call. We must make housing a political issue, and we can begin
by holding our elected officials accountable. This is no easy task. It
requires consistent vigilance and hard work. And yet, if we want
a more just society in which everyone is adequately housed, we must hold
Fundamentally, elected officials care about one thing: votes. The keys to votes and to the power needed to hold elected officials accountable are people and money. Housing activists need to learn how to use these keys to influence elected officials. Use this four-step process to analyze your potential to hold your elected officials accountable and visibly demonstrate your organization's power.
1. Analyze Elected Officials
2. Analyze Your Supporters and Potential Supporters.
Learn as much as possible about your elected officials. Learning about
them one-by-one is crucial, because elections are held ward-by-ward or
- By how much did the elected official win the election? The smaller the victory, the better for you he or she will be eager to hear from constituents.
- Who were the primary groups of people supporting the elected official? How many were "hard core" supporters and how many were possible swing voters?
- What are the elected official's positions on your issues? Are they firm ideologi-
- cally, or are they more flexible depending upon the voters' positions?
- Where did the elected official's money come from? Is any of it from groups that oppose you? Is there evidence to suggest that the elected official is "bought" by moneyed interests?
3. Make a Plan.
Who are the people who care most about your issues? Money and votes flow
from the committed supporters.
Who else might care about your issues? What other groups might be willing
to vote based at least in part upon your issues?
Are your supporters and potential supporters registered to vote, and did
they vote in the last election?
Did any of your supporters or potential supporters contribute money to
their elected official?
- How can we "cut" our issues so they appeal to a broad segment of voters? In order to be successful in the long run, we need a majority in the district or ward supporting our positions. This means we have to define our issues more broadly to unite poor and working class families. If not, they'll be pitted against one another, and we all lose.
4. Demonstrate Your Power.
It is not enough to have the people and campaign contributors on your side,
you must visibly demonstrate that power. A few tried and true tactics for
demonstrating your power include:
Is your elected official strong on your issues, and has he or she won the
election by a wide margin? If so, keep up the good work. Maintain a relationship
with the elected official and help that person strengthen the base in the
community, but focus more attention on other, less agreeable or less popular
- Is your elected official a supporter of your issues who won by a small margin? If so, you will need to shore up his or her support. Make sure your supporters are registered and come out to vote. Register other voters. Educate potential supporters about your positions and the importance of having your elected official's support.
- Is your elected official flexible (a moderate), depending upon the perceived interests of the district? You must demonstrate that a sizable portion of the district cares about your issues. The closer the election, the more the elected official cares about groups of voters; however, you must make sure that your group's support doesn't diminish the elected official's support from another group. If it does, you will have to demonstrate that votes and money support your position.
- Is your elected official indifferent or adverse to your issues while having won the election by a small margin? Unless you think the elected official is redeemable, it is probably best to begin looking for another candidate to support and begin educating the voters about the official's position on your issues, so they will vote for an alternative candidate in the next election.
Does your elected official oppose your issues but enjoy wide electoral
support? This is the worst situation. Unless a very large number of unregistered
voters could be registered and mobilized, you may want to consider focusing
your efforts on other districts.
Voter-registration drives. Make sure all new supporters are registered.
Turn out the vote campaigns. Except in times of high publicity and high
turnout, a well-orchestrated campaign to turn out the vote is an effective
demonstration of power.
- Orchestrate communication with elected officials to help them gauge their constituents' concerns.
Personal letters get the most weight, but they are hardest to generate.
Postcards or petitions are less influential unless people send them in
large quantities. It may be easier to collect 5000 postcards than 50 personal
letters. Ideally, collect both.
- Use the phone and fax also. Seek quantity rather than quality. Politicians are seldom moved by the merits of the position, but they may well be moved by the breadth of constituent interest.
Town hall meetings. Turn your supporters out to these meetings. Wear visible
buttons or pins. Grab the mikes early and ask your questions. Be a visible
Media coverage. Issues covered by the media are believed to concern constituents.
Have supporters write letters to the editor (the second most widely read
section of the paper), seek editorial board endorsements, write guest editorials.
Try to get media coverage of every event possible demonstrating public
support for your issues. Media coverage gives the impression of broad support
and educates potential supporters.
Accountability sessions. Ask the elected official to commit to your issue
at a well-planned, large meeting between your supporters and the official.
Invite the media and large segments of the community. These meetings are
effective ways to demonstrate power and work especially well with flexible
elected officials who won close election races.
Kim Bobo is a trainer with the Midwest Academy, a national training
center for organizers and activists. The Midwest Academy works with city-
and state-wide housing coalitions to develop grassroots organizing campaigns.
Back to November/December 1994 index.