Have you ever called or emailed your Georgia senator or representative and wondered if it made any difference? Do the messages you leave and emails you send go into some black hole or electronic version of “File 13”? Do you not even bother to contact them thinking it doesn’t matter anyway?
I’ll let you in on a little secret. Your elected officials do listen to you. After all, they want to get re-elected, and the best way to do that is to listen carefully and sincerely to the people who vote for them. Just like you and me, they care about our state and want to do what is best for the people of Georgia. We may not all agree on the best thing to do, but in my experience, representatives and senators seem to be sincere in the issues they champion. Your voice is heard. The phone calls and emails you send do matter.
I saw the impact regular citizens have on their elected officials with my own eyes on February 12, 2015 at DMST Lobby Day at the Capitol. This is a yearly event sponsored by Street Grace, Georgia Cares, Youth Spark, and Wellspring Living. More than 500 Georgians gathered downtown at The Georgia Railroad Freight Depot for a press conference featuring GBI Director Vernon Keenan, Attorney General Sam Olens, Senator Renee Unterman and others to rally the troops before we walked across the street to the Capitol to speak out for victims of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking (DMST).
Two bills working their way through the General Assembly this year address the issue of DMST, and while we were at the Capitol, the Senate was debating and voting on their version of both bills, sponsored by Senator Renee Unterman. Senate Bill 8 (SB 8) increases the criminal penalties for people convicted of sex trafficking and requires that they register on the Sex Offenders Registry. It also increases protections for exploitation victims, including extending the statute of limitations to age 25 for actions stemming from the abuse. Senate Resolution 7 (SR 7) is a constitutional amendment creating the Safe Harbor for Sexually Exploited Children’s Fund and a separate commission. If passed by the House and signed into law, SR 7 will be on the ballot in November for the people of Georgia to vote on.
Lobby Day organizers gave each attendee two letters, one for their senator and one for their representative, asking that they support the legislation to combat DMST and create a fund to help victims. Senator Unterman told us she did not have the votes to pass SR 7 that morning, and after the press conference, all 500+ of us walked to the Capitol to deliver our letters.
Usually, we go to our representatives’ offices and give the letters to their staff. However, since the senate was debating our bills that morning, we went directly to the Senate and had our letters and other notes delivered directly to the senators on the floor. Some of our advocates asked that their senator step outside the Senate chamber and talk to them in person. The senators did, and our advocates were able to talk to their senator face to face and personally make the plea to support the upcoming bills.
We watched with excitement the closed circuit TVs outside the Senate chamber as Sen. Unterman took to the podium to persuade her fellow senators to support her bills. She spoke passionately about protecting Georgia’s children and ensuring that the punishment for those exploiting children was severe. Other supporters of the bills stood up and spoke as well. When the votes were taken, both bills passed with only three nay votes each. Now the House will consider its version of the bills, and the process starts all over again.
The morning we arrived, there were ten senators planning to vote No on SR 7, and by the time the vote was taken, seven of those senators had changed their minds. It is not a stretch to think that knowing more than 500 people gathered at the Capitol to support the bills played a part in encouraging them to vote for the bills.
Your voice matters. You, too, can be an advocate just like the more than 500 people who came to DMST Lobby Day. If you feel passionately about an issue, let your senator and representative know. They may not ultimately vote the way you want them too, but you will know that you were heard.
If you are unsure whom your current senator and representative are, you can find them at Open States.
Karla Jacobs is a member of the Georgia Commission on Women. She lives in Marietta with her husband, two kids, a dog, and some fish.