It was reported this week that during a hearing on a proposed bill to ban judicial lobbying, Craig Gabel, from Kansans for Liberty, said that he was testifying on behalf of the “common citizens” of Kansas. When I read this, I immediately began to wonder about how the “common citizen” of Kansas actually gets heard in the Legislature. Indeed, I began to wonder whether the views of the ordinary Kansan are heard in Topeka anymore.
On one level, of course, ordinary citizens’ views are heard through their elected officials or, at least, that’s the theory. In recent years, however, voter turnout in many parts of Kansas has been abysmally low. I have, in the past, questioned whether some of the bills introduced in this legislative session have really represented the beliefs of ordinary Kansans. To my mind, the problem with our current system in which so few Kansans go to the polls is that elected officials often represent the views of a vocal minority of voters who are motivated to vote because of specific “hot button” issues. The majority of Kansans often don’t vote in elections so to say that elected officials represent the “common citizen” is really not accurate at all. These legislators often represent minority views allowed to prevail by general voter apathy.
It is certainly true that the average citizen, if motivated enough to take the time and effort, can testify before the Legislature on various issues. I have done it and it’s a great deal of work, but well worth it to be heard by those in the corridors of power. But I wonder how many Kansans actually do this. My sense is that very few ordinary Kansans actually testify before our Legislature. On the other hand, anyone who visits the Capitol during the time when the Legislature is in session knows that the building is filled to the brim with lawyers and lobbyists often representing groups with patriotic and inspirational names that, in reality, represent small, special interest groups. I really cannot think of very many lobbyists who really represent the ordinary Kansan.
Then there are the polls and the so-called “objective studies.” We seem to be overrun by these. But, here again, one has to ask whether these are truly objective. The very fact that most of these polls and studies seem to reflect the political and economic views of the groups that pay for them suggest that they are not truly objective at all.
I’m afraid that I have to conclude that we don’t really know what the ordinary Kansan thinks about most issues that come before the Legislature. Indeed, I suspect that the ordinary Kansan knows little about most of the bills that go through the Legislature each year. And that’s a pity. It’s a pity because I believe that the ordinary Kansan is a decent person who cares about his neighbors and about the state and those views need to be heard in Topeka. Unfortunately, the ordinary Kansan doesn’t care enough to vote regularly or to take the time to tell his representative what is important to him or to actually come to Topeka to tell the Legislature directly what he thinks.
I think that those Kansans who are unhappy about legislative actions should stop complaining in private unless they are willing to take action themselves. Ours is a state with a proud history of populism. We the people are not powerless. We can speak and we can tell our leaders what we want and what we value. But there is only one way that ordinary Kansans will be heard in Topeka: through the ballot box and through personal involvement. There was a common slogan in the 1960’s that I think Kansans need to remember: “power to the people.” It is time for ordinary Kansans to speak out and to act. Only then will we really know what the “common citizen” believes.