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Activism in the spaces in between

Cross posted from Pruning Shears.

It can be difficult to write about activism in an open-ended effort like the one against fracking. It isn’t like a campaign where all the activity is geared toward election day, at which point everyone will know who won and who lost. It’s different even from an issue like the Keystone XL pipeline, which is a single (continent-spanning) contiguous piece of infrastructure, and which will ultimately get a definitive yes or no.

Fracking involves lots of activity in communities dotted across the nation. There are big shale plays in some parts of the west, some parts of the Midwest, some parts of the east, and so on. But nothing connects those dots, and that makes it hard to give the thing a sense of its nationwide scope. Coverage will tend to be on a smaller scale, which makes it easier to dismiss it as a purely local or parochial concern.

Another issue with coverage is that developments tend to move slower than the news cycle. Activists like our group might start something like a monthly water monitoring program, but after kicking it off there really isn’t much new to report on it. You can’t make much of a story out of: We’re still monitoring!

This week there was an interesting new development though. Our county had not approved an increase in funding to our health district since 1955. We’ve had lots of renewals, but no increases. Counties and other regional bodies are capable of providing valuable services to residents, but those services cost money – paid through taxes. Asking people to raise their taxes is a pretty heavy lift, as our track record on this issue shows.

Because of the contacts and knowledge our group has gained through our water monitoring program, we knew about the replacement levy coming up and invited someone from the board to speak. He talked in general terms about what the department was doing, what its challenges were, and so on. We raised our concerns about fracking to him, and he said the department would look into subsidizing the cost of its water testing program if the levy passed.1

So we ordered a batch of signs and put them out on our lawns:

We also talked up the issue with friends and neighbors, and generally tried to promote the issue as we could. We weren’t in any way prime movers in the effort, but we pitched in as we were able to.2 And miracle of miracles, it actually passed.

There are a couple of interesting notes in the article. The eye popping one for me is this: voter turnout of 8.87 percent. My experience at the polls was certainly congruent with that. I got there about a half an hour after polls opened and I thought I’d gone to the wrong place. It was deserted.

Inside, I initially went to the wrong room (misplaced signage – not my fault!) and found out I was the first voter to show up. I then made my way to the correct room and found out I was the first voter there as well. By contrast, last November I arrived about ten minutes after polls opened and there was already a long line. It was quick inside the booth as well – the health levy was literally the only item on the ballot. That wasn’t true county wide, of course, but it’s safe to say there were considerably fewer issues than in November.

These two factors make an interesting dynamic: Lower voter turnout means each voter who does show up gets more bang for the buck. Your vote has more weight if it’s one of ten than it does if it’s one of a million. And the thinner ballot means the election results generally were something of a referendum on the levy itself. Last November’s replacement levy defeat was bundled with votes for president, Congress, and so on. But Tuesday’s replacement levy success was close to an endorsement of the levy, plain and simple.

There are potentially some good lessons for activists. The first is that action on a controversial issue like fracking can be taken through less contentious avenues like health department funding. Lots of people enthusiastically support the oil and gas industry, but the population opposed to local health department funding is pretty much limited to anti-tax zealots.

Second, a group that believes it has popular support on an issue might do well to look to special elections to get on the ballot. There is less chance of the issue getting diluted or obscured by other issues, and activists can translate their support into maximum leverage at the polls.

Finally, the process of identifying issues and reaching out to key players is a great way to build social capital. It gets you in touch with people you wouldn’t have been in touch with otherwise and find ways to support a related issue in ways that might not have been obvious. And every now and then it all translates, as it did on Tuesday, into a surprising and pleasant victory.


1. Technical/legal note: we refer to our program as water monitoring and not water testing, because we don’t want anyone to think the handful of metrics we look at is in any way equivalent to the far more extensive testing done by the county or the EPA. We are very careful about our word choice.

2. This sort of purely grassroots effort is exactly the kind of situation where a third party could make hay. One would think that a party like, say, the Greens would be strongly in favor of, say, adequate funding for health departments. To the extent they are absent, they are missing out on party building opportunities. They may not have the time, resources or inclination to do so in my neck of the woods, which is fine. But I will be decidedly unimpressed with their guilt trips about supporting the awful two party system when the next presidential election rolls around.

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