Do Your Homework: Representative Democracy Depends on You



Democracy is not about freedom, but accountability. We elect individuals we trust to hear our collective concerns and address matters with thoughtful deliberation and sound judgement. When those for whom we cast our ballots stray from the better angels of our greater society or fail to perform their duties with competence, we the people must hold them accountable. And that’s hard work. So, while it is undeniable that some elected officials abuse their offices, it is equally certain that too many voters fail to do the work necessary to hold public officials accountable. The result of this failure of the people is the spread of infectious cynicism, manifesting itself in vocal discontent, further inflamed by the media that worsen it from a low-grade to a high grade fever of discontent. 


As November 8 approaches, voters focus on the presidential election, and in doing so, sweep local races to the periphery, losing sight of the prospective legislators whose agendas will affect them much more immediately and personally. Local senators’ and representatives’ decisions impact the day-to-day lives of Rhode Islanders equally, if not more so, than those made by the president, vice president, cabinet and United States Senate and House of Representatives. That is the balance struck between federalism and democratic-republicanism. The states get to run themselves within the parameters set forth by the federal government. Whatever one’s opinion of the role of states’ rights, its influence on our own laws, rules and policies is undeniably powerful.

Then why is it that so many Rhode Islanders cannot name their state representative or senator? And even when they can name those who represent them, why do they know so little about what those people stand for? The impetus for this article came from Mike Ryan, Motif‘s publisher. He wanted to know why so few local legislators are willing to make public their stances on certain (if not most) issues. In the brief conversation Mike and I had, it became clear to me that his concern merited analysis. As one who has dabbled behind the scenes in Rhode Island politics, I have been exposed to enough for a little to have stuck to me.

Even without questioning lawmakers, one can make a strong argument that state legislators and challengers for office decline to take a public stand on most topics, unless pressed, because voters do not really care about candidates’ positions on most issues. Before taking offense, understand most voters do not care because most voters do not know the issues until they become controversy. That is not to say voters are unintelligent or irresponsible, but meant to spark discussion of some possible reasons why there is a shortfall of issue-based state-level voting; and, correspondingly, why voters cast their ballots based mostly on name recognition.

Two behavioral concepts come into play here. The first is called attribute substitution. When an individual must make a judgement on a complex problem, instead of undertaking a task that may not be resolved easily and satisfactorily, that individual substitutes a much simpler attribute. An example is when an individual replaces a difficult set of facts with a feeling or a memory. Therefore, if a candidate on a ballot is a familiar name and nothing else, that is often all a voter needs to decide who to choose. The second concept is an availability cascade. This occurs when a relatively simple and apparently insightful concept takes hold within a social system and spreads as a response to a more complicated problem. This can be observed when media becomes saturated with a trending news event of an unusual and evocative nature. Because it is unusual, it is news. Because it evokes emotional response, it is trending. However, because it is repeatedly encountered by a large percentage of people, it is perceived to be more important to the lives of the people who see the news item, but are unlikely to experience the actual event. In short, when complex problems require complex debate for resolution, nuanced and long-term argument cannot compete with short, simple and blunt. Then, when news media sinks their claws into reporting, media outlets that provide short, simple and blunt outperform in terms of number of viewers.

Disappointment becomes distrust. Uncomfortable becomes unsafe. Possible becomes probable. Imperfection becomes disaster. These feelings, quite often devoid of substantive debate, lead to the negativity and cynicism Rhode Island voters feel toward their politicians. That brings us to the perspective of the incumbent or challenging candidate. Members of Rhode Island’s general assembly are not well paid. They are required to shoulder their legislative responsibility as a part-time and seasonal position, often taking them away from work and family, exposing themselves to public scrutiny, and having to campaign every even numbered year for reelection. Yes, there are examples of corruption. Yes, there are instances of abusing privilege and power. That said, there is little evidence of candidates running for Rhode Island legislature with criminal intentions. Although it is a popular theme filled with dramatic potential, the House of Cards portrayal of ruthless power-plays executed with surgical precision is largely fallacious. The reality is, voters often substitute the quality of an effective legislator with a desire for someone relatable and likeable. Although the qualities are not mutually exclusive, voters who choose someone they feel is more, “down to earth” should not be so surprised if that candidate, once elected, is placed in a situation requiring an elite level of moral fortitude and exceptional prescience based on detailed and nuanced topical knowledge, and makes the wrong choice. You voted for Fred instead of Velma because you did not do your homework and you thought he was dreamy.

But, this is not a PSA. The purpose of this article is to discuss to whom state lawmakers are accountable, and why they do not or cannot focus their campaigns on the many complex, intersectional issues that could become laws. If representative democracy works based on accountability, then people must do their homework. It is feckless to substitute a general feeling of distrust and cynicism rather than developing an informed opinion. It is, without a doubt, easier. But, the voter who says, “I do not know much about it. I just know I do not like it,” has no right to complain when it fails to result in effective government.

Pop quiz:

  • Can you name your state senator?
  • How about your state representative?

If you cannot, go ahead and cheat. This is an open-book test. You can look it up here (www.sos.ri.gov). Got it? Good.

  • Now, what are your local state senator’s and representative’s main areas of legislative focus respectively?
  • On what committees do they serve?
  • Do they hold any leadership positions?
  • On what bills did they act as key sponsor?
  • On what bills did they sign on as co-sponsor?
  • What do they do for their personal incomes?
  • Did they have primary opponents in September?
  • Do they face challengers on November 8?

If you could answer those questions, give yourself a pat on the back. Yet, if you are patting yourself right now, you are a rare breed. If you are, like most Rhode Islanders, not an expert on the inner workings of the Rhode Island State House, then you received a failing grade on that pop quiz. That’s okay. You have a second chance.

  • When does Rhode Island’s legislative session start?
  • When do they adjourn session?
  • What days of the week are they typically called to order?
  • When are they scheduled for committee hearings?
  • How much are they paid for their services?

By the way, if you would like to see the answer key to these, and many other questions about your state’s elected policymakers, you can visit this site (www.rilin.state.ri.us) for a comprehensive source for all things general assembly.

Extra Credit:

For extra credit, visit this site (www.elections.state.ri.us) and answer:

  • Who are the biggest donors to your state senator’s/representative’s campaign war chest?
  • What are the most common occupations of the contributors to your district’s lawmakers?
  • What PAC contributions are reported?