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Advocates Say Digital Connections Are Meaningful, Accessible

People in Zoom call
Advocates on a Zoom lobby call with Del. Glenn Davis (R-Virginia Beach).

Lobby days are an important tradition in Virginia politics, when advocacy groups bring their members together at the state capitol to hold demonstrations and speak with lawmakers face-to-face. COVID-19 has changed all of that.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a group which holds its well-known lobby day on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday,  organized a car rally this year instead of a more traditional one which would likely not meet Gov. Ralph Northam’s social distancing standards.

Many other advocacies are choosing to take their work entirely online. 

Dr. James Fedderman, head of the Virginia Education Association, said “for everyone’s protection, our lobbying activities have had to go virtual this year.”

He says the new way of doing business has forced VEA staff and advocates to be more intentional about being in touch with lawmakers leading up to and during session. 

Fedderman also thinks taking people out of the bustle of the General Assembly building is helpful in some ways.

“I think that the level of conversation and engagement is more meaningful because you don’t have as many distractions,” he said. “The issues are the issues and that is the focus.”

Another advocacy group that’s moved all online is Voices for Virginia’s Children. That organization advocates for a wide variety of children's issues.

They also work with Virginia students and educators, training them in advocacy and providing opportunities to meet with lawmakers, attend meetings and be involved in the legislative process.

“The folks that we’ve had in meetings have said things like ‘I really felt listened to,’” said Emily Griffey, policy director at Voices. Others said they felt like they had more time with lawmakers than years past.

Chloe Edwards works with a cohort of over 20 advocates, made up of students, artists and educators through Voices. They had meetings with lawmakers around the state scheduled for a sort of virtual lobby day on Monday, and have taken a series of advocacy trainings in preparation. 

They’re also paid a stipend, which Edwards says “increases the ability for the loudest voice in the room to be that of the people impacted by the conversation.”

Edwards says the geographical aspect - or lack thereof - has been key. Now, students from around the state don’t have to skip any school days to meet with lawmakers - they can log onto Zoom, advocate for funding or legislation, and go back to class. 

That applies to private Zoom meetings and public committee and subcommittee meetings - Griffey also points out the new option of posting a written public comment that follows the bill through the legislative process.

Kristin Jimison, director of engagement for the Virginia Nurses Association, says virtual meetings are the only option for many nurses this year. Between hectic schedules and COVID-19 best practices, in-person meetings are not feasible.

“There’s always scheduling and timing and people have to drive places and go places, but when you are able to do things virtually, I really think it increases accessibility,” Jimison said.

All of the advocacy workers interviewed for this piece agree that digital advocacy should not go by the wayside once face-to-face meetings are more feasible.

“The virtuality of advocacy in nature has increased access to decision making tables,” Edwards said.

Constituents can still speak to their lawmakers face-to-face, due to a settlement reached before session. Meeting spaces have been designated at Bon Secours Training Center by the Science Museum of Virginia, where the Senate currently holds its meetings.

At the time of publication, no delegates have used the off-site meeting space, according to House of Delegates staff. Most of them are working from their own districts anyway. 

The Senate Clerk’s Office has facilitated some meetings, but said the demand for face-to-face time has been low.

Despite the benefits of access, there have been some hiccups with virtual lawmaking. On Tuesday, the full Senate adjourned for a few hours due to internet failures across the East Coast. 

And earlier in the week, several members of the public scheduled to speak against a bill being heard by the House Education subcommittee on SOLs and SOQs were not called on by the committee clerk, apparently due to a technology error. 

The mistake was later acknowledged, but committee chair Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg  moved the meeting along. He said the committee, working on a two-hour time limit, didn’t have time to hear more people. 

That’s not unprecedented - busy and well-attended meetings in years past have resulted in members of the public not getting to speak.

Republican House leader Todd Gilbert released a critical statement, saying that if the meeting had been in person, it’s more likely the public commenters would have been heard. 

A spokesperson for House Democrats said the virtual session is a public health necessity - and that access to the legislative process was better this year overall.

Patrick Larsen is VPM News' environment and energy reporter, and fill-in host.
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