Strong foundations needed for great things

"Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work." - Thomas Edison

You want to know the best way to attract more voters to your political party’s candidates and win elections? Make sure that you fill the ballot with enough candidates to send a cohesive message up and down the ticket.

I’m always surprised that every election cycle, opportunities are blown with dozens of uncontested seats and cancelled elections. Do you know what happens when no one runs for a position? There’s no “do-over.” Someone is usually appointed, which is the antithesis of democracy. In my own community of Springfield, Oregon, there was a stretch between 2014 and 2015 during which there were 26 races for public office, and 18 out of the 26 positions were uncontested or unopposed. Only 8 times out of those 26 races were there an actual choice presented, and that was more often than not Democrat/Republican candidates, as opposed to having third party options (which Americans overwhelmingly would like to see on the ballot due to the major parties doing “such a poor job” of representation).

I’m not blaming American voters, either. There are plenty of people who would like to run for office and get involved (especially on the local level, where the campaigns are less stressful and there is maximum opportunity for impact). Information - or lack thereof - is the the biggest thing that stops people from running. To run for office, citizens first must be able to find information on which positions are open, when elections take place, and how to get on the ballot. At NationBuilder, we’ve started RunForOffice.org to make this information readily available. Our site allows users to enter their address, see what they can run for, and learn how to file as a candidate.

Why should top of the ticket politicians pay attention? The reason is simple: down-ticket candidates mobilize more voters on election day, and provide opportunities to pool resources: economic, social, and political. If a voter is already in the election booth for down-ticket candidates, the hardest part (convincing voters to show up) is already done. Top of the ticket politicians only need to convince that voter that their campaigns echo the same message. So why do these higher-up politicians regularly fail to take advantage?

Robust “candidacy turnout” (which means that an election has enough candidates to provide a reasonable array of choices) is not often done because it demands more effort and resources from party leadership to organize first-time candidates and their campaigns. County party chairs thus focus on the top of the ticket because chairs catch more heat for losing bigger races than smaller ones. So, instead of supporting a dozen candidates for school board, water district, and smaller city councils, the lion-share of resources go to the top of the ticket, like state representatives, which is often a waste, since these races are more often than not unopposed or take place against pretty weak competition.

It makes sense for county chairs to look out for the congressional or state senate seat, but ultimately, it weakens their party. It deprives them of energizing grassroots supporters of bottom of the ticket candidates, fails to build candidates’ experience for the future (usually called “developing the bench” and meaning the same as in sports: letting the people still building skills get some game time), and neglects the energy and enthusiasm of political newcomers looking to make a difference.

Over time, by supporting top of the ticket politicians at the expense of “less important” candidates, the party hollows itself out and becomes weaker. It prevents itself from sending a cohesive message to a community and giving the members of their party the option to actually vote a “straight ticket” (and with the unpopularity of both Trump and Hillary, 2016 seems like the best year ever to unite and run a change campaign).

Even so, if your party won’t encourage you to run, NationBuilder is here to support you. People think that campaign donations and lobbyists motivate candidates and shape their political platforms, but nothing motivates politicians more than their own survival instincts. What politicians really are afraid of is losing their seats, and they lose their seats when they are competing against candidates with true grassroots appeal (Hi, Eric Cantor).

On Friday, August 12th, the filing window for thousands of positions in California will end. I’m not sure when or which party or movement will take advantage of the opportunity to “occupy” the ticket, but I’m betting that sooner or later, one of them will, and it will be instantly successful. That movement, whatever it is, will not only have candidates that win and are able to “breach the wall” into elected office, but even the candidates who don’t win office will gain experience for future elections. Most importantly, voters will feel energized by new choices and ready to mobilize for this new movement.

Build your movement from the grassroots up and let the bottom carry the top. Candidates equal votes. Forget about protesting: it’s time to run against them.

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