Understanding Our Opportunity – Local Elections

The 2020 Presidential election is already making headlines during this first week of 2019.  Infighting seems to be running rampant with both of the dominant political parties as notable candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and to a lesser extent, Beta O’Rourke have spoken openly about running on the Democratic ticket while Republicans seem to be in disagreement about whether or not someone should challenge Trump in the Republican primaries. [1]  With all of this focus on the national elections it is easy for progressive thinkers, legislators, and activists to lose sight of the opportunity for significant holistic transformation of society in favor of the fervor surrounding Presidential elections and national hot-button issues.

In this essay, I will argue that the most significant opportunity for the long-term progressive change of society is the revising of our local municipal and state elections.  It’s an argument for bottom-up change that enhances the potential of every individual. If we can separate ourselves from the distractions, we will recognize that real change is both possible and within our grasp in the present time.   

Devils in the Details

Recently OurSociety released its 2018 Annual Report detailing their research and efforts to build a prototype for an online local election campaign information platform in New Jersey.  The information presented paints an overlooked but a specific flaw in our political process. In 2018 only 329 of the 1404 candidates running for local offices such as Mayor, Councilperson, or Committee Member had a dedicated online website or Facebook page about their campaign for office.  To put it another way, 77% of candidates running for local office in New Jersey had no online information about why they were running and what they intended to do if elected.

The data presented is a localized sample, but we can imagine that if a coastal, diverse [2], and wealthy [3] state like New Jersey is performing so poorly on transparent local election information, it is possible that other states may be facing the same problem.  This absence of candidate info directly translates to a lack of options for voters. It negates the argument that people don’t participate in local politics because they are lazy or uninterested, instead revealing that the details necessary to facilitate participation are merely unavailable.  

Data breakdown from the OurSociety.org 2018 Impact Report

In 2018 it takes about 30 minutes to set up a proper website via WordPress and even less for a social media page.  Millennials are the largest voting bloc [4], and nearly the entire generation are internet users [5].  Given the facts, I find it difficult to imagine an acceptable reason as to why the vast majority of candidates chose not to make an effort to provide information online regarding their candidacy.   Humans are context driven beings, if we fail to provide pathways for understanding within our political structure we will never succeed in the expansion of democratic participation.

Overlooked, ignored, or misunderstood?

As the data presented on New Jersey local candidate elections primarily focused on access to information, we can only speculate as to why candidates’ online presence was so deficient in 2018.  Solving this problem requires us to be a bit imaginative in our exploration of potential obstacles, but in doing so, we can begin to develop a framework for how to best address this issue.

Using a Bloomberg Cities [6] analysis as a starting point, we find that three-quarters of the 1400+ mayors surveyed were over the age of 50.   According to a 2018 Pew Research study [7], little more than half of the people over 50 engage in the most popular online platforms (Facebook and YouTube) available today.  

If we assume that the age range of U.S. municipality council members is similar to that of U.S. mayors we have our first potential clue as to why information may be so lax.  It’s possible that the lack of sufficient online candidacy information is a generational issue. Simply put, the people running for leadership positions in our local communities are, by in large, not of the internet generation.    This translates to some potential issues ranging from fear of the unknown, lack of understanding of how to use online platforms, the perception of the potential value to be gained from posting campaign information online, and others.  

Assuming age factors into answering why so few of the 2018 candidates posted information online about their candidacy we can implement actions to address these concerns in the future proactively.  Demonstrating the value of having your candidacy information online can be addressed by providing via localized search data and community surveying. Having local candidate information online ensures that candidates can be viewed an understood by all community members, not just those few who can attend in person gatherings.  

OurSociety.org saw local candidate info searches spike nearing election day

To address fears regarding the use of a new communication medium we make sure that every candidate running for office had the opportunity to speak with a support team member who will help onboard them onto the platform.  Via phone, virtual screen-share, or in person we will provide candidates an opportunity to learn the platform as their profile is being set up. By offering a personalized onboarding experience, we remove the barriers associated with learning new technologies.

Beyond possible age-related challenges, we could imagine that local candidates may have thought that posting their candidacy information online was just unnecessary.  Local elections get little if any press compared to larger state and national elections. Mayors and council members focus their time and efforts on solving issues impacting their local community such as traffic and parking, public safety, local economic growth, roads, and affordable housing.  These issues have a high frequency of impact for many community members but lack the excitement and outrage spewed forth from the national political machines. The error in this line of thinking is to confuse a lack of enthusiasm for lack of interest. Community members want to know who their options are, what they stand for, and why they are running for office.  Denying them access to that information in an easy and convenient format by abstaining from the effort to make it available is an undemocratic practice.

Of course, there may be more cynical reasons why candidates may want to avoid having their campaign information online.  The adage, “If it isn’t broke don’t fix it.” rings true in many minds today. There are Mayors in New Jersey who have held the same office since 1991, some of which whom have run unopposed on multiple occasions.  Candidates may believe that is in their best interest to stay under the radar, relying on column placement and the single letter next to their name to win the office. Unfortunately for their constituents, it seems as though their strategy is historically correct.   

Reforming Local Elections

Improving citizen access to local candidate information will require a multi-pronged approach but is an effort well worth pursuing.  At the time of this writing, we observe a renewed passion for election reform being presented from the Democrats [8] which is a positive step but still misses the mark of developing systemic improvement.  Campaign finance reform, voting rights reforms, redistricting, and ethics reforms are all steps in the right direction but will do nothing to raise the temperature of democracy in the United States. Deepening access and agency within the electoral process for all citizens is a core progressive goal of transformation in our democracy.  To do that we must begin foundationally, focusing on communities and local elections.

The legislative solution is that candidates should be required, by law, to have information about their campaign posted in an easily accessible online format. Accurately answering the questions of who they are, their professional history, and their vision for the communities they desire to serve.  This information would be required at the time official candidate registration and would deny candidates the ability to run if they were unwilling to share information about their campaign.

There are numerous options as to how candidates might present this option.  In setting up these options candidates would want to focus on ease of access to their platform of choice, cost (both time and capital), and the ability to connect with community members seeking to engage.

The first is a dedicated website such as www.johndoe2018.com which at the time of this writing costs $8.99.  A site hosted on WordPress with a free template the setup would take about 30 minutes and require a moderate level of technical competency.  The challenge with this option is for people who lack web design experience you’re going to have many websites that organize information poorly, are challenging to navigate, and do not present information consistently across the multiple candidate websites.  The result is a bad user experience, shifting learning about candidate options into a laborious task. Still, a poorly designed website is better than no site when it comes to candidate information.

The second option would be Facebook.  I am loathed to suggest Facebook for reasons  I will outline, but it is the most popular option for users in the standard age demographic of mayors in the U.S. and relatively easy to set up.  Facebook is the worst option for many reasons. First, tying a pay for views model like Facebook’s to local campaigns perpetuates the very problem we are attempting to solve, access.  If you aren’t paying Facebook to advertise your posts are not being seen by your followers. Second, shifting our local elections into the primary control of a for-profit organization will set us back in the fight in removing money from politics.   Third, Facebook has been dishonest for years in regards to Russian interference [9] and have attempted to use public relations firms to deflect from their problems. [10] We cannot trust the organization or its leadership to hold a stake in a vitally important public institution.

The third option that I will argue strongly for is the OurSociety platform or another like it.  There are key elements designed into the platform make it ideal for this exact function.  The organization is structured as a non-partisan 501c3 non-profit. It promotes no political agenda and offers no advantage to any candidate or contest.  It is free for everyone to use as a candidate or citizen.

User experience is central to the design offering tools for people at all interests levels.  Feature suites allow citizen users an experience designed to help them better digest the information in a format that resonates with them.  Candidate users have a professional grade suite of tools to help make accessing volunteers, organizing events, and sharing their ideas with the community.   Information is presented clearly in a concise manner that can expand easily. The entire database of candidates is available, but the default is a localized experience to whom we see on our ballot.

Sustaining Future Progress

In developing innovative solutions we must proactively address the inevitable challenges.  Who will pay for it? The platform can be designed to sustain itself if needed, free of any public investment. I propose a revenue model that creates sustainability through small fees charged to the winning candidates based on the position and length of term.  We can allow the public to decide if the winning candidate should pay this fee or subsidized by public tax dollars.  The latter being a great choice if the community as a whole wants running for office to be completely free of financial influence.  In the public funding scenario, sponsoring the winning candidates in my 2018 hometown elections would have cost every resident slightly less than a penny.   Excess revenues beyond direct costs are used to fund continuous platform improvement as the user base evolves.

The most compelling aspect of this model is that it doesn’t just remove money from politics; it transcends it.  A state-sponsored candidate platform gives candidates more exposure than they could ever get through paid advertisements through traditional media.  Aligned with legislation for the dramatic reduction of money in politics, a non-partisan, non-profit election info portal is a restructuring of how people access democracy at a local level and beyond.    

Citizen awareness can be achieved through multiple channels such as including information about the platform with sample ballots, advertising through popular search engines and social media channels, interviews with the program architects in local news media, and official press conferences announcing the structural reformation.  The state could also mandate an educational requirement for all high school seniors to spend an hour learning about the platform and participating in dialogue about the candidate options in their municipalities. Presenting information in a relevant and concise manner in a format that resonates with the user will ensure quicker adaptation and use.  If we are to engage our youth in the democratic process an online access platform provides the best pathway to do so.

Looking to the future, if we’re willing to get creative with how we structure the organization, we can experiment with developing a public ownership model with a term-limited rotating citizen board.  Scaling this model up to a national level is an achievable goal within a reasonable timeframe and would allow us to generate revenues that would exceed the possible costs of running the organization. Funds made beyond possible platform expansion can divert into new public projects, which the public can choose democratically.   In doing so, the project comes full circle to its core purpose, deepening democracy.

The vision presented in this argument is one that is both necessary and achievable today.  The policies being discussed by current political leaders to help reform our democratic process are a good start but will ultimately fall short of creating the meaningful change that is possible with a bit of imagination and implementation.  If we reject the path of least resistance and demand systemic solutions, we can create significant and lasting change in our democracy. Access to local election information and the increased participation rates that will follow is the cornerstone for a more transformative future. By imbuing access and agency into our political institutions, we lay the foundation for a democracy that genuinely works for the people, not just those who can afford to make it work.

[1] Romney’s attack prompts call to protect Trump from 2020 primary challenger by David M. Drucker Washington Examiner  https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/news/campaigns/romneys-attack-prompts-call-to-protect-trump-from-2020-primary-challenger

[2] These Are The 10 Most Diverse States In America by Chris Kolmar HomeSnacks https://www.homesnacks.net/most-diverse-states-in-america-128573/

[3] List of U.S. States and Terrtories by Income Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_and_territories_by_income

[4] Millennials projected to overtake Baby Boomers as America’s largest generation by Richard Fry Pew Research  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/03/01/millennials-overtake-baby-boomers/

[5] Millennials stand out for their technology use, but older generations also embrace digital life by Jingjing Jiang Pew Research  http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/02/millennials-stand-out-for-their-technology-use-but-older-generations-also-embrace-digital-life/

[6] 7 Millennial mayors to watch by Bloomburg Cities https://medium.com/@BloombergCities/7-millennial-mayors-to-watch-c85e207995d3

[7] Social Media Use in 2018 by Aaron Smith & Monica Anderson Pew Research http://www.pewinternet.org/2018/03/01/social-media-use-in-2018/

[8] Democrats plan ‘aggressive’ oversight of Federal Election Commission by Dave Levinthal & Ashley Balcerzak Public Integrity https://publicintegrity.org/federal-politics/democrats-plan-aggressive-oversight-of-federal-election-commission/

[9] Facebook, Twitter and YouTube Withheld Russia Data, Reports Say by By Sheera Frenkel, Daisuke Wakabayashi and Kate Conger https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/17/technology/tech-companies-russian-interference.html

[10] How Facebook’s PR Firm Used a Conservative News Site to Fiercely Attack Its Rivals by Aaron Mak https://slate.com/technology/2018/11/facebook-definers-ntk-network-conservative-news-site.html

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