For our Energy Democracy program, the word “democracy” is often at the forefront of our minds. Our work looks at the environment, clean energy and the ways those two things interact. But it is grounded in people. It is focused on participation. It’s curious as to how we can create a society that is more equitable, more just, and so much more responsive to the concerns and needs of those it has historically wronged.
As November approaches, I’ve found myself, like a lot of folks, anticipating election season with an immense amount of dread. My email address has been sold to every candidate email list imaginable. I no longer count the number of campaign advertisements I have to watch before viewing a single YouTube video.
Voting is a curious concept. It’s a peculiar form of activism that seems dissociated from real action; showing up once every two years, marking a ballot, and walking away until society comes calling again. As a younger millennial, and someone whose memories of the late ‘90s carry just enough permanence to be cemented in my brain forever, voting is synonymous with things like the hanging chad. Voting is a critically important part of our democracy, but sometimes it just feels like a burden.
Democracy is a more difficult term to define, though often conflated with voting. Its reality is much more complex and nuanced. It’s an active and engaging process that calls us to do more than pull a lever. It urges us to be uncomfortable, to talk to our neighbors even when their opinions are different from ours. It calls on us to critically question those in authority and those who seek it, both out of skepticism and genuine curiosity. More than that, it’s an exercise in community. It’s an exercise in finding ways in each of our own lives that build a more equitable and resilient community that works for all of us.
When we talk about “energy democracy,” we’re talking about the ways democracy plays out in a sector of life that we don’t always consider. For those who are member-owners of their rural electric cooperatives, the connection is simple. Go vote in co-op elections. Run for co-op board. Help actualize the change you and your neighbors imagine could have incredible impacts on your life. When our institutions are public, understanding how we can hold them accountable and exercising our right to vote out those who hold positions we disagree with is the first step, a single step of many, in realizing that right. As an organization, Appalachian Voices often encourages folks to participate, to show up to hearings, to sign petitions, to write comment letters.
For customers of investor-owned utilities such as massive corporations Duke Energy and Dominion Energy, our calls to action are not quite as simple. When institutions are private, and inherently and intentionally non-transparent at their core, the ways in which we practice democracy are often more obscure. These institutions don’t work for us. Instead, our advocacy must be aimed at elected officials and the regulators they appoint to hold the corporation accountable to some degree of public good.
Not all of us have access to these fundamental rights, just as not all of us have equal access to being heard. The way the powers that be try to limit our participation at both the ballot box and in other participatory processes makes the need to do better that much more important. Given the barriers many Americans face when it comes to exercising this right, it would be privileged for me to say it’s an easy exercise. However, the ballot box is a critical component of our fight for democracy where we make our demands heard.
Voting is just the beginning. It falls far short of solving the problems we as human beings encounter. However, in a world where we must begin thinking about democracy being a principle that expands outside of the ballot box, voting is still an important first step.
Many of Appalachian Voices’ partners are directly engaged with Get Out The Vote voter registration and voter protection efforts across our region. To find out more about voting in your state, visit the nonpartisan voting resource howto.vote.