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Every year elections are held in the United States.
Federal and state elections every other year (except a few states who are truly “off-year” outside of the two-year cycle). Local elections, county and municipal, are held somewhere every year.
There are approximately 88,000 local governments, districts, and commissions containing over 500,000 elected officials.
Many local offices are nonpartisan, meaning not party affiliated. School Boards and small cities and towns assume local functions are not truly partisan. Is there a Republican or Democrat way of collecting trash or plowing snow?
Local government is designed to be more intimately related to the people it serves. Ironically, few Americans understand its functions, and fewer know their local officials.
This is unfortunate, as local government is, in many ways, far more important than national and statewide offices. Local laws and their enforcement can affect property values, quality of education, quality of water, and determine life or death when managing first responders.
This dichotomy of importance and ignorance creates numerous challenges and opportunities.
On the one hand there is less interest in running for these offices. In smaller towns and cities, of importance and as many as 79 percent of local elections are uncontested. There is also less interest in voting for these offices. Stand alone local races, held in off-years, may experience voter turnouts of less than 20 percent. Local elections held during regular cycles, usually county and school boards, may garner 30-40 percent less votes than for the high-profile state and federal offices.
On the other hand, smaller voter turnout means a dedicated group of activists can elect a candidate as change agent. It also means a low threshold for a first-time candidate entering a local race.
21st Century campaigns have become extremely expensive.
In 2014, the average winning campaign for the U.S. Senate campaign spent $10.6 million. In 2018, incumbent U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) spent $33.5 million in her losing re-election campaign. In 2018, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) spent $25 million to lose his re-election, while Governor Rick Scott (R-FL) spent $68 million to defeat him.
Campaigns for the U.S. House of Representatives can also be very expensive. Congressman Alex Mooney (R-WV) spent $1.8 million for winning his 2018 re-election.
These campaign finance numbers do not include the millions spent by “independent” organizations to promote or oppose candidates through direct mail and professionally produced radio and television advertisements.
Compare this with county-level campaigns where $5,000-$20,000 may be all that is required for victory. Winning small town and School Board campaigns may only require a just few hundred dollars.
“Down-Ballot” offices are ideal for average citizens to run for office for the most idealistic of reasons – to help their community. Many who run for these positions do not desire political careers. They are motivated by seeing something that needs to be done and answer the call to do it.
Another aspect of local “down-ballot” campaigns is that they usually transcend partisanship. This is certainly the case for officially nonpartisan offices. Even partisan local campaigns will see bipartisan cooperation when community values, honesty in government, and civic reform is at stake. There are countless examples of activists who may be deeply divided on national issues joining forces to “drain the swamp” of county courthouse insiders.
Successful “Down-Ballot” campaigns may include a few yard signs, but rarely include major advertising. Social media, especially Facebook pages and groups, have been the winning edge for many of these first timers. Some create their own Facebook and YouTube videos to introduce themselves or highlight issues.
The intimacy of local campaigns also allows for neighbors to help neighbors. “Meet and Greets” in private homes and door-to-door face-to-face interactions are the purest form of grassroots campaigning. Money is not as important. One local candidate, who was revered for her charity work, won by a landslide despite being outspent 21-1.
This lack of interest in running and voting has, by design or chance, levelled the field for average citizens to make a difference. Either as a candidate or as a supporter/voter of that candidate, “down-ballot” offices provide a way for caring members of the local community to get involved and contribute to the greater good.
What could be more American than that?
Scot Faulkner advises corporations and governments on how to save billions of dollars by achieving dramatic and sustainable cost reductions while improving operational and service excellence. He was the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. House of Representatives. He started his Congressional career as an intern for Rep. Don Young (R-AK), then served on the legislative staffs of Rep. Arlan Stangeland (R-MN) and Rep. John Ashbrook (R-OH). Faulkner later served on the White House Staff and as an Executive Branch Appointee.
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I ran for our City Commission in 2010, against an entrenched, long time commissioner. Very cordial and positive campaign.. Actually knocked on about 2500 doors, campaign had very little staff and about 5 volunteers. My opponent had a consultant, campaign manager, and at least a dozen volunteers. I lost by less than 400 votes, although turnout in my town was a dismal and disgusting 9.8%.. CRAZY! People just don’t know or care about local elections. After that election, I went on a rant and then made it my mission to increase voter turnout. I wrote blogs, I spoke at city meetings, I talked to a LOT of people.
Right now, our town is up to about 22% turnout, still dismal but better than before.. So many take the right to vote for granted and cavielerly. Sad…
Thank you for this article.
Thank you for the essay. A wise friend of mine made the piton in the 80s that he would always vote in local elections because they impacted him more directly and he impacted it proportionally more.
Barb, thank you for sharing your experience.