Making State Government Understandable to the Average Citizen
Busy citizens don’t always know how to understand or influence their elected officials at any level. The media shine their spotlight on Washington, D.C., but do far less to inform voters about what is going on in state, county, and city governments. But that’s where many key decisions reduce freedom and prosperity.
State and local governments also are the places where citizens can have the most direct say and impact, in the quickest way. Those reasons, and more, are why the John William Pope Civitas Instituteexists. A nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Civitas accomplishes its mission through a number of means, including polling, research, publications, online legislative tracking, candidate and journalism training, and a robust internship program.
“We serve as a two-way communication channel between citizens and their elected officials,” said Francis De Luca, who has served as top executive of Civitas since 2008. “Through polling, lawmakers learn what voters think on the issues. Through legislative rankings, voters learn where their representatives come down on issues. It’s about facilitating communication and having a conversation.”
Since opening its doors in 2005, Civitas has played an important role in shaping North Carolina’s public policy landscape. The nonprofit has empowered citizens to become more effective members of our democracy, educated emerging public leaders, and informed elected officials about conservative solutions to North Carolina’s problems.
“Civitas is at the intersection of policy and politics,” De Luca said. “It’s important to understand both to be informed about how our process of self-government works.”
Educating the citizenry
Through its communications department, Civitas brings a conservative message to citizens and elected officials alike. Two of the chief means are through Capitol Connection, a monthly newspaper, and Civitas Review, a magazine published periodically throughout the year. The publications feature journalism and opinion on pertinent issues of the day.
Electronically, Civitas staff maintain a blog that is updated frequently with current events and topics and a transparency website. Civitas updates readers and members weekly with an email compilation of highlighted items.
Veteran journalist Jim Tynen heads up Civitas’ communications team. The magazine is designed to educate readers on broader issues that affect the course of North Carolina, Tynen said, while the newspaper is targeted to a wider audience.
He sees expanded opportunities for nonprofits, like Civitas, to influence the journalism landscape as traditional media outlets continue to decline.
“I think publications such as ours will have a growing role to play,” Tynen said. “People are turning to a wider variety of media to get information. Many will decide to use media that advocate clear viewpoint. That creates a need for organizations such as ours to reach out to wider audiences.”
Civitas also has published a detailed series of policy recommendations on the state budget, transportation, education, and health care — all with the goal of creating liberty and prosperity and bringing people out of poverty.
“If we’re truly interested in lifting more people out of poverty, we need to focus on creating economic growth,” said Brian Balfour, Director of Policy and Operations for Civitas. “Poverty, properly understood, is the lack of wealth. Free enterprise creates more wealth than any alternative, and it is wealth creation that lifts people out of poverty.”
Polling, tracking, reform
Civitas’ polling operation is highly credible and often cited by mainstream media. Civitas commissions polls on voter attitudes on issues ranging from taxation, education, and health care to marriage, abortion, and election reform. Additionally, it keeps track of the horse races for president and state-level offices in North Carolina.
For citizens interested in seeing the poll results in depth, each month De Luca and his staff hold a poll luncheon to release and analyze the newest survey.
“Our polling operation serves the vital function of telling lawmakers where North Carolinians stand on important issues,” De Luca said.
Civitas also goes deep by providing election information through its Civitas Partisan Index (CPI) and N.C. Vote Tracker. The CPI takes all 120 N.C. House districts and 50 N.C. Senate Districts and assigns a partisan-advantage label, similar to the Cook Partisan Voting Index at the national level. The index allows voters to see whether Democrats or Republicans are more favored in their district.
N.C. Vote Tracker provides one easy-to-use online stop for North Carolinians to see demographics and voting trends during the most recent elections.
Civitas also analyzes and suggests improvements for the election system in North Carolina. Civitas has conducted research into early voting, Same Day Registration and the conflict between the last decade’s voting law changes and statutes already on the books. It recommends ways to make the system more secure and reliable.
To increase the strength of North Carolina’s electoral system, Civitas hosts a number of candidate training sessions across the state. The sessions include foundational information on campaign organization, campaign finance and laws, and communication and social media.
Civitas staffers also spearhead training programs for grassroots activists and citizen journalists, including investigative journalism training aimed at keeping local and state governments transparent and accountable to the people.
De Luca sees many opportunities for the future of Civitas, particularly in light of the conservative resurgence that has taken place in North Carolina.
“For most of the next decade, we’ll likely see continued Republican control of the state legislature and very possibly the governor’s mansion,” he said. “We’ll probably see a more conservative approach to government, but there is no guarantee. We’ve seen that elected officials of both parties are prone to big government and big spending. Our job is to keep the people informed of what they are doing and remind elected officials what North Carolinians expect of them.”
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