Here’s why you should have a go at running in local elections

I’m always ranting about how important it is to vote in local elections, but today I’d like to invite you to up your game: Have you considered running for local office? You might be surprised by how easy it is, and it could be a valuable experience for you. And if your campaign is successful, you will be in a position to personally implement policy changes, which is pretty exciting. So here’s why you should do it.

As I’m always saying in my pleas to vote in local elections, the local level is where some seriously important policy happens. Local officials make decisions that directly affect you. Council members appoint people to the planning commission and other agencies. The planning commission makes decisions about development. Mayors and city councils draft and pass ordinances. Judges that you vote for make decisions in a variety of criminal and civil cases. If you don’t elect judges in your area, chances are high that you vote to elect the people who appoint them. Decisions made on this level have a real-world impact on your daily life, from cost of living to who gets to use which bathroom.

It’s also common for voter turnout to be extremely low for such elections, and for people to run unopposed, or to win by very slim margins. Less than thirty votes can sometimes be the difference between two candidates, and that’s pretty pathetic. If someone is running without opposition, they might not even end up on the ballot, making it impossible to run a write-in campaign. People make important decisions about local politics through indifference, and that’s not really making an informed choice, now is it?

Which is where you come in. You, my friend, can run for one of those offices. Don’t get caught up in concerns about experience: Everyone has to start somewhere, and city staff tend to be very supportive of people who are just gaining their footing. The only way to learn how to be a city council member, for example, is to be one.

It helps to be familiar with local issues and policy, and to be familiar with the workings of government. But again, don’t get hung up on these things — the people currently in office probably didn’t. If you’re eligible to run, that means you’re qualified for the purposes of city officials.

Typically, the city or county is required to post a notice indicating that people who want to pull nomination papers can pick them up at the clerk’s office, and must return them by a certain time. Depending on region and office, you may need to collect a set number of signatures (usually not very many) and pay a filing fee. You can also submit statements for the ballot (I recommend having your statement translated for the benefit of voters who might not speak/read English). You don’t need to go into elaborate detail with your ballot statement, just explain who you are, why you think you’d be a good candidate for office, and what you plan to do with your skills.

Once you’re in the running, it’s time to think about campaigning. Reach out to your opposition — they may be interested in holding a debate or information session, and your town hall or community center should be able to host you, often for free because it’s an event conducted for the public interest. If you’re on a budget, take advantage of local tools to promote yourself: Social media, signs around town, letters to the editor, etc. A lot of people run with the support of Facebook groups who organise around them.

Consider using a local issue or cause as a rallying point. Are people concerned or angry about something? Use it to your advantage by taking a clear stance in public and explaining how you’ll address concerns. Maybe people are angry about obstacles to development that are slowing housing growth: Talk about how you’ll promote smart, dense development with affordable housing mandates. Be concrete. You don’t need to be wonky about it, but show people that you have a proposal, it’s workable, and you know how to enact it. If you don’t have policy experience, look at what other areas are doing and take a leaf out of their books — that allows you to say ‘Santa Barbara (or wherever) implemented a similar plan and within five years they found that (some percentage) of the problem was alleviated.’

Try doorknocking: You can get rolls of registered voters and go out along with supporters to introduce yourself and encourage people to vote. Phonebanking is another option. Keep your spiel short, simple, and clear, and be mindful about when you’re campaigning — you want to catch people when they’re home, sure, but you don’t want to irritate them by calling during meals, or too early, or too late. Here are some tips on phonebanking you can use while preparing scripts. Not everyone is super stoked to be canvassed, so keep it chill and polite, and thank people for their time even if they’re slamming doors in your face.

I sometimes find out about candidates in the weirdest ways: They have floats in the parade, they chill out in front of the grocery store and hand out cookies, whatever. You don’t need to spend a ton of money on advertising, especially in a small area, to get heard. And you can take advantage of the news as an advertising venue — get yourself on the news for doing something innovative, or a little weird, or interesting. (Look how well it’s working for Donald Trump!)

On election day, hit up those voters: Remind them that they need to turn out to make a difference. And once you’re in office, well, you’re in for a whole new world.

Image: My Ballot, Tal Atlas, Flickr