In our first installment, Talking Politics introduced Civic Engagement Beyond Voting (CEBV), a grassroots organization dedicated to helping progressive voters get involved in the legislative process.
The organization was founded by Melinda Merkel Iyer, a Tucson-based activist, is bringing politics down to a local level, where citizen action can make a difference in the way the state is governed.
“I had always been into politics tangentially, I guess,” Iyer told TP in a recent interview. “I knew it was important, but I focused mostly on the federal level, as most people do.”
But when the 2016 election rolled around, Iyer realized she had to do more than just complain about national politics and really get involved. Her activism led to the founding of CEBV, a 501(C)4 nonprofit that reaches more than 10,000 Arizonans.
The organization’s weekly newsletter focuses on the legislative request to speak (RTS) system, and there are weekly Zoom “RTS Happy Hours” each Sunday at 4 p.m. to help navigate the system and discuss bills that are coming up the following week.
“I did not really realize the importance of local politics until the 2016 election,” she says. “I [thought], ‘I gotta do something. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I got to do something.’ So one day, I went to a legislative district meeting and learned about the request to speak system. I thought, ‘this is great, I can sit at home on my couch.’ I don’t sit at home on my couch, but that’s why we call request to speak the gateway drug to activism.”
RTS allows voters the rare opportunity to connect with lawmakers and comment on pending legislation that affects the daily lives of Arizonans. CEBV helps register people for RTS, as the only way to get into the system is to register in Phoenix or Tucson. The only requirements are American citizenship and being a resident of the State of Arizona.
Iyer is more than happy to share her knowledge of the process and give direction on how to read bills and understand the very esoteric rules of the legislature.
With the help of people she’s met along the way — including capitol runners, ASU professors and various other motivated individuals — Iyer and a small handful of volunteers have worked to make a difference in a state that has turned politically purple in the past few years.
“We’ve hijacked the system, and I’m very proud of that,” Iyer says. “We’ve now registered over 10,000 people for requests to speak [and] have an email list of more than that.”
CEBV tracks about 30% of the bills proposed a very high percentage according to Iyer, with an eye toward a progressive perspective.
“We work under the philosophy that a rising tide lifts all boats,” she says. “So, if I care about environmental advocacy, and you care about public education, and we both weigh in on each other’s issues, we are elevating each other’s interests and ultimately moving the state forward into a space that can respect and honor the viewpoints of the majority of the population that lives here.”
CEBV avoids “culture wars” issues and focuses on basic government functions she says a majority of Arizonans want: clean and plentiful water, good roads, and a strong public education system that attracts business to move here.
“We’ve lost sight of the issues that truly affect Arizona because the extremists are all about fighting social battles that have been going on since the beginning of time,” she says. “I’m not interested in the culture wars. I have a senior in high school who has never had a fully-funded public education.”
The deadline for the first phase of the legislation is coming soon, so in order to participate more in the process, time is growing short.
Monday training sessions and Sunday happy hours can be easy ways to learn about the system and use your voice and your vote more effectively. The CEBV weekly update offers the following suggestions:
- If you have 5 minutes: Call House Speaker Rusty Bowers (602-926-3128) and Senate President Karen Fann (602-926-5874). Ask them to advance a clean bill to waive the school spending cap, so Arizona’s public schools aren’t hit with $1.2 billion in cuts at the beginning of March.
- If you have 25 minutes: Use RTS. For help, watch CEVB’s 5-minute video (best on a separate device you can pause as needed) or stop by the Zoom Happy Hour for a breakout training.
- If you have 40 minutes: Scan the list of bills in Rules committees, and plan phone calls.
- If you have 60 minutes: Watch a committee hearing or some floor action. There is usually something every day that’s worth engagement.
- Need help? Join a weekly Monday night CEVB RTS training, or drop into a Sunday afternoon RTS Happy Hour, both on Zoom.
This year, there are many bills being proposed to inhibit voting rights for Arizonans, so this is a particularly important time to get involved and raise our voices to protect one of the most important rights we have in a Democracy.
House Speaker Bowers, surprisingly, has taken a stand against one of these bills, House Bill 2596, by assigning it to every committee with the expectation that there is very little possibility it will survive the process.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. John Fillmore, (R-Apache Junction), stated to Capitol Media Services that he would like to see Arizona go back to “1958-style voting.”
Someone needs to remind our elected representatives that it is the 21st century and as much as they would like to ignore that and hope it goes away, reality will eventually trump any desire we have to live in the past.
We are at a time in American history where voting is not enough. If we are going to save Democracy we need to get more involved or we will get the government we deserve.
Public education is under attack as well, as many other bills have been proposed to compromise what we teach our students and effectively defund public education.
“One of the things that I tell our followers is just because somebody is loud, doesn’t mean they’re the majority, and it doesn’t mean they’re right: they’re just loud,” Iyer says. “Democracy is not something we have, it’s something we do. It’s up to all of us to push back and make sure that we get leadership that adequately represents the interests of real everyday Arizonans. Disengagement is what gets us extremism.”
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.