The Midterm Elections and Us
by Frank Bowe.
The "midterm" elections are, in political terms, right around the corner. So called because they fall halfway through a presidential four-year term, these elections -- this year's is on November 7 -- will result in the election of all 435 US Representatives, 33 of the 100 US Senators, and 36 state Governors.
Already, politicians are actively seeking support. They are attending fund-raisers, meeting with supporters, speaking to local civic clubs, and anxiously reviewing poll results. The seniors, to illustrate, are being courted assiduously. They are well-known to vote more than any other component of the American electorate. That alone pulls politicians to their gatherings, like moths to a flame. This year, though, with so many seniors confused and upset about the new Medicare Part D plan, candidates for office are stepping up visits to nursing homes, retirement communities, and other venues where they can appeal to older voters. All over the country, candidates are acutely aware that voters aged 60 and over have voted for conservatives for 10 years now (starting in 1994). They also know that these voters favored progressives and liberals in most elections prior to that (1960 through 1992). Will the pendulum swing back? Candidates care deeply, because they know that these seniors can make the difference between victory and defeat.
We need to become visible over the next six months. We need to speak up. We need to make candidates aware of our interests, worries, and priorities.
Astute civic activists, too, are gearing up. They are inviting candidates to speak at national, regional, state and local conventions. They are hosting fund-raisers. All this while snow is still on the ground in February and March. And they are hungrily reading "The Fix" every Friday in the Washington Post.
The Washington Post has an interactive electoral map online, here. (You need to do a free registration, entering your e-mail address and a preferred password. Do it -- it's worth it.) By clicking on your state on the map of the U.S., you open up links to stories about races for the state house, Congress and the Senate. The stories are refreshed every week or so, as polling data come in, as candidates enter and drop out of races, as primary elections are held, etc. The New York Times offers one, too (which is created and maintained by CapWiz).
Wikipedia, the user-supported online encyclopedia, has a nice guide to the November elections. This is not a professional site, as are those at the Post and the Times. Still, it's quite accurate.
The Disability Vote
Our community is electorally diverse. We are not as monolithic as are union members, trial lawyers, religious-right conservatives, or other segments of the population. That is good, and not so good. The good news about it is that there is no "right" vote for a citizen with a disability. Also, the party label doesn't define candidates for us. We have strong, long-term friends in both parties. The not-so-good news is that since we don't all vote the same, our millions of voters do not attract the same level of candidate attention, and fear, that you see with some other communities of voters.
If there is no "right" way to vote, there is no "national message" for our community. Or is there?
Here's how I see it. What follows is purely opinion.
Our community is very interested in domestic issues. We think the nation has given too much attention, and too much money, to adventures abroad -- and neglected just-as-pressing concerns here at home. We place high value on health care matters. We support greater investments in education and job training. We want accessibility not only in the built environment but also in the increasingly vital information "world" of wired and wireless Internet, video streaming, Instant Messaging, and the like. We want captions at first-run movie theatres -- and video description on broadcast and cablecast TV programs.
All of this suggests a strategy for spring, summer and fall.
We should look closely at candidates for office in our states and Congressional districts. Which candidates are echoing our concerns -- and sounding our themes? Listen and Look: of the people competing to be our Representatives, Senators and Governors, which ones support a "return home" focus? An "invest in America" platform? A "universal health care coverage" vision? And which do not?
You can garner much information from your local paper, radio and TV stations, and, of course, online. Each campaign has a "campaign headquarters" -- quite possibly near you. People answer phones there. Many post events and other information on a campaign web site. All of these sources will tell you what you need to know: where your candidate stands on the major issues, which events he/she has committed to attend, when and where public forums are being held, and the like.
Key for our community is to become visible at these gatherings. You want candidates for office to know that you're "out there". You want them to understand, in general terms, what issues are important to you. You want them to appreciate the fact that these issues are important enough for you for you to show up at campaign events.
You also want to be e-mailing the campaign, calling the headquarters staff. You want to be writing letters to the editor of the local newspapers, calling in to talk shows on the radio, et cetera. In all of these ways, you directly and indirectly make candidates aware of your concerns and interests.
Once you're satisfied that candidates for office are at least minimally familiar with your "hot button" issues, you should begin pressing them to take positions on those issues. Ask them "where do you stand?" Do so quietly, in phone calls, letters and e-mails -- and then, a bit later, publicly by standing up at campaign events and asking out loud.
And, as I suggested in an earlier piece in the Rag, link up with seniors, many of whom share our concerns. The 76-million-strong Baby Boom generation is rapidly joining them: the oldest boomers turn 60 this year. Our people should be visiting retirement communities, speaking about accessibility, and helping seniors to recognize our shared concerns.
We should speak up about entitlements. Already, Medicare and Medicaid are being cut in Washington, and in many state capitols. These rollbacks are controversial. In my opinion, entitlement spending is spiraling out of control. It is true that "something has to be done." What matters to our community, I think, is what exactly that is. It is one thing to mindlessly slash-and-burn, cutting billions across the board. It is something else altogether to say: "Let's help people who now rely on entitlements to prepare for life after benefits. Let's expand job training. Let's make telecommuting more affordable and more available. Let's expand employer-sponsored health coverage." As you interact with candidates for office this year, probe to see if they support that kind of tough love.
And of course there are state and local issues that vary greatly from community to community. I am embarrassed to admit, for example, that New York, where I live, is last in the nation in implementing the Help America Vote Act. Politicians in our capital city, Albany, just don't seem to get the message -- or perhaps they get it, but they don't care. Similarly, some States are being really good about helping the so-called "dual eligibles" (people who are on both Social Security and Supplemental Security Income) to weather the chaos of Medicare Part D. Other States are not.
What really matters -- the proverbial bottom line -- is that our people need to become visible over the next six months. We need to speak up. We need to make candidates aware of our interests, worries, and priorities. We need to signal to them that these things matter so much that we are prepared to base our voting decisions on them.
Frank Bowe, often called "The Father of Section 504" and "An Advocate's Advocate," has a 40-year history of activism. He led the 1977 nationwide protest that gave us section 504, worked with Justin Dart and others on ADA, and helped to make TV captioning available everywhere. A professor at Long Island's Hofstra University, his newest book is Making Inclusion Work (Prentice Hall, 2005). The opinions expressed here are his, and not those of any organization with which he is affiliated. Read his recent articles for Ragged Edge Online, Disability Meets the Boom and The Time to Rise Will Come Again.