Legislators have a name for when people try to mimic grassroots campaigns, state Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, said.
Pierce calls it AstroTurf “because it’s fake grass.”
AstroTurf campaigns were one topic of discussion at a Wednesday night meeting, led by Pierce at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bloomington. 157 community members met to listen to Pierce give tips from the perspective of a legislator on how best and most efficiently to grab a lawmaker’s attention in order to enact change.
“Astroturfing” is technically defined in political science as trying to make it appear that extensive, grassroots support for a certain policy exists when in reality it does not.
Among Pierce’s tips was a suggestion to be original with emails or calls to legislators rather than just copying a template email from a grassroots website.
“When legislators can see this kind of spontaneous ground swell, it freaks us out,” Pierce said.
It’s effective when citizens legitimately get fired up and involved in changing something they don’t like about the way their government is working, Pierce said.
As an example, he mentioned the brief period of time when it appeared the United States House Republicans were going to eliminate an independent ethics committee. The weekend after that was announced, congressmen received complaints that were authentic and that came from the individual outrage of each constituent, Pierce said. The spontaneity of that outpouring scared lawmakers so much that within a few days they decided against removing it, he said.
“I think people were just naturally outraged, and between Friday and Monday, they just hammered Congress,” Pierce said. “No one was telling them to do it.”
Pierce compared this type of outpouring to the kind of formulaic emails that would come from simply clicking a button on an advocacy group’s webpage.
Pierce said sometimes he’ll receive 10 emails in a row that clearly came from a constituent who had just discovered a grassroots campaign website containing issues pertinent to them. They’d probably clicked on an “email your legislator” button for a bunch of issues in a row, and then in Pierce’s inbox, there’d be 10 very similar emails.
“That’s not a bad thing,” Pierce said. “Even though you can tell it’s a form email, it still kind of counts.”
However, bombarding is not always the best strategy, the Bloomington legislator said.
Pierce also advised community members to first and foremost make sure they reach out to the legislator that represents their district.
Lawmakers will listen primarily to their own constituents, Pierce said.
He advised people to network, get on social media, figure out how to connect with others around the state. Convert people to your cause, Pierce said. Search for grassroots groups that interest you.
“Occasionally, you find out there’s not any group at all,” Pierce said, smiling. “And then you have to start your own.”
After finishing his spiel, Pierce opened the room up for questions.
One man from the audience asked how important the words he has to say are.
Pierce said sometimes it does come down to just sheer numbers. Legislators will look at community responses to current issues and determine how many people are on each side to judge where their constituents stand on it.
A useful tool with respect to organizing a large number of people for one particular cause is social media, Pierce said.
Judy Berkshire , a 68-year-old Bloomington resident, mentioned that she’s lived in Indiana all her life, and she’s never experienced as much trouble being heard by lawmakers as she is right now.
“I don’t think anything works now with the current Republican legislature that we have,” Berkshire said.
With that in mind, she asked Pierce if he feels that what he has to say is ever heard by his Republican counterparts.
It depends on the issue, Pierce said. With extremely partisan issues, such as private school vouchers, there’s typically no way Republicans will budge.
However, 90 percent of issues are not a “political lockdown,” Pierce said.
“There, there you actually can persuade some people from time to time,” he said.
One of the last comments came from Anne McLaughlin , a 53-year-old Bloomington resident.
At first, she was resistant to networking across the state, she said. But now she realizes it’s the best thing she can do.
If Bloomington residents want something to change, she suggested they just shut up and listen to the voices of other Indiana residents.
“There are like-minded people, but we have to speak to them where they’re at,” McLaughlin said. “They don’t talk like us, they don’t always think like us, but they’re good people.”