How to Run for Office

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This article has some factual errors and inaccuracies. Before making decisions regarding how to run a campaign for public office, please apprise yourself of the facts from your local and state authorities as well as from the FEC and any other applicable regulatory bodies. If you are seeking election to a state or local office, chances are your LP state affiliate will be able to help you. If you are seeking election to a national office, you should contact the LNC.

Forword

Hi, my name is Heather Ashcraft. In the 2000 election I ran for State Representative as a third party candidate against Byron Rushing, an eighteen-year incumbent democrat in Boston. I ended up with 21% of the vote, nearly 30% after a re-count of one poling location. It was a gloriously victorious defeat. I had thought that I would gather only single digits, with a wishful hope for double-digits. It was a tough race that taught me a great deal about many things. There were many things that I wish I had known before I started my effort that I often ended up learning too late to do any real good. That’s why I’m writing this handbook. I would like to give others a chance to learn from my mistakes and victories.

Why should you run for office?

This country is a democracy, albeit a representational democracy at best. That means that the government is comprised of the people. However, it seems that the people in are government are becoming less and less representational of the people. It is becoming full of professional politicians who spend their entire lives under the safe blanket of a ruling class. The only way to bring the government back to the will of the people is to bring the people back into the government. This is where you come in. By running for office, you will be infusing the government with your will. You will affect change through your efforts even if you are not elected.

Another reason to run is that you will gain a unique opportunity to learn the ins and outs of our government, first hand. You will become a more informed voter. You will become more socially knowledgeable. You will make a positive change.

I ran bearing the notion that I would learn from my experience: about the government, the society in which we live, and myself. I think I was successful and that I’ve walked away with new insights and a “goody-bag” of new information.

Another reason that I ran was to help spread the message of my political party. One of the many problems third parties have in our country is getting the message out that they exist. Another problem is letting people know what the party stands for, not what the major party propaganda says about a third party. You may find, if you run as a third party candidate, that many people have deep and false perceptions about you and your party. By running and talking with people, you help to clear up these ideas.

I will not lie to you and tell you that running for office is easy, because it is not. It is a lot of work, but it is very rewarding work. If you already feel somewhat overwhelmed in your daily life, I would not recommend running. However, if you have a little free time for a few months at the beginning of the election cycle, I cannot think of many better ways to spend the time.


What are you up against?

A good idea, before you decide whether or not you will run, is to investigate your district and your potential opponent(s). You may find that the constituency might not like the incumbent, or that they love him. You may find that you agree with your potential opponent about more than you disagree. Learning about your opponent is a good activity to do before you collect your signatures, because the people signing to get you on the ballot will be asking lots of questions. It is a good idea to know where they are coming from. Your city’s election department will know if any other candidates have submitted papers to run for office yet. Another thing to keep in mind are local issues. It would be helpful for you to know what people in your district are concerned about, rather than just blindly running into their questions. Some issues are easy to uncover. When I was running, everyone, Fenway Park and the question of eminent domain talked about the big issue, and therefore it was easy to find information about it. However, there were a great deal of other smaller issues like the cost of rent and public transportation that were important to people. In addition to local issues, there are also personal issues, both for you and your constituency. You should be able to articulate what you believe needs to be done about your issues. You should understand why you feel the way you do and have good logical evidence to back-up your positions. The people you talk with will be interested to hear about your thoughts in many cases. However, they will also expect you to be interested in what they have to say, and not just about the big issues. People have their own personal issues and they will ask you questions about the things that are important to them. For example, I got a lot of questions about dogs. See, living in the city, many dog owners find it hard to find space for their dogs to exercise to maintain their health, so dog owners were concerned and asked me (a non-dog owner) about my opinions. While the issue of dog’s rights (leash laws, dog space, etc.) was a city issue, I still had to give a response even though I ran for a state position. Do not let yourself be caught off guard, as people will have interesting questions for you and they will expect an intelligently considered answer. If you do not feel comfortable giving them one on the spot, take their contact information and get back to them, promptly. People will respect you for that just as much, if not more, than if you gave them an answer up front.

Getting on the ballot

Getting on the ballot is the first hurdle in running for office. The number of signatures will vary depending on the position you would like to run for, the state, and the status of your party. For me, it was 150 valid signatures. A valid signature is one that is legible, of a registered voter who lives at the registered address, and who is from your party of un-enrolled. (If your party does not have major party status, you may be able to collect signatures regardless of the party in which a person is enrolled.) To get the forms you need, the “nomination papers”, you will need to go to your local election office. The people there will be able to answer some of your questions pertaining to “qualified” signatures and numbers of signatures. A “qualified signature” is one that meets the standards created by the election commission. These standards help to keep down the number of fraudulent signatures. For example, the name of the signer and the address of the signer must match in the State’s voting registration records. So, if a person has recently moved, and their voting registration information was not updated, they will not have a valid signature. Another thing to watch for is legibility. Sometimes it is very hard to get people to write clearly. Usually they are in a hurry or are mostly uninterested in signing your petition, and their signature will show this. If the people verifying the signatures on your sheets cannot read a signature, they will not count it. Make sure people write legibly, include their address and their full name, and are registered to vote. The trickiest is learning a person’s voting affiliation. Many people will not know. If you are running as an independent, or from a party that does not have major party status, you will not need to know or bother with affiliations of the people signing for you. However, if you are running affiliated with a major party, the only signatures that will be valid are those from people of your own party affiliation and those who declared themselves “un-enrolled” or “independent”. ALWAYS ERR ON THE SIDE OF THE GREATEST NUMBER OF RAW SIGNATURES. For me, gathering these 150 signatures took a tremendous effort and a great deal of time. I ended up gathering over a thousand raw signatures that whittled down to about 160 valid signatures. To get those thousand raw signatures I estimate that I spoke with over two thousand five hundred people. I spent about 300 man-hours in about two months collecting the signatures. I am not suggesting that many people will have such a difficult time; in fact, I think I was very far down one end of the extreme. I have spoken with people who had spent 90% less time gathering their signatures; it just happened that I lived in a very difficult district. When you gather signatures, you will find that not everyone is interested in giving their name to your cause. Remind people that they have no obligation to you, that all they are doing is giving you a chance to be on the ballot. Some people will still not sign but do not become disheartened. Most people do not know enough about the system to know that petitions are how people get on the ballot. They might worry that you are trying to swindle them or use their name in some way they would not want.

A little caveat: there are people you can pay to gather your signatures. They tend to charge between $2-$5 per valid signature. However, they are not always reliable and the charge can add up fast, if they do manage to get you signatures. I would personally recommend gathering the signatures by yourself and/or with the help of friends, family, and volunteers. (By gathering them yourself, you’re giving yourself a great opportunity to meet the people who can vote for you.)

Expressing your ideas

When you are out gathering signatures, or just talking with people, you should have a concise statement on your platform and beliefs. You should be able to tell people in about a minute what you stand for and why they should vote for you. It would help if you wrote out your thoughts and practiced them, so that you will be fluid and accurate when you speak. The last thing you want to do is not to know what you are running for, or not being able to tell somewhat for what you are running.

Later, after you are on the ballot, you can use your little spiel as a guide for your position papers.

Another good idea is to have business cards printed up so that people can keep in touch with you and voice to you their opinions and ideas. It might also be handy for finding volunteers or people to make donations.

Spending Time and Money

Once you are on the ballot your campaign can take a little or as much time and money as you like. All it depends on is how active you want your campaign to be. You may want to sit back and run a paper candidacy in which case all you have to do is get on the ballot. Beyond that the time and money costs of your campaign are highly variable. You have a lot of options for your campaign.

Signs

Signs can cost between about $3 and $15 each, depending on size, quantity, and color choice. If you live near the Massachusetts/New Hampshire border, I would recommend Hammer and Sons. They had the best price and were very friendly and understanding people to work with.

You will need to create your sign art yourself, or hire someone else to do it. Generally speaking you do not want much information on your sign. Your name is enough in some cases. You want your name to be as large and legible as possible. However, many states have regulations that state you must include information about who paid for the sign. For example I needed to write, “Paid for by the Ashcraft Group, contact XXXXX at (XXX) XXX-XXXX” on my signs. Check with the elections office to find out what the current and local regulations are. If you have a web site, it would be an excellent idea to include the address on the sign.

The first sign is slightly better, just for the reason that the name (the most important part) is so visible. You could even drop the “vote” and make the important information bigger.

  • A little hint, there have been studies that show people are more persuaded by signs that closely resemble ballots. So, if you know what your districts ballots look like, use it, as long as you remember what information is important and you keep the sign from getting cluttered or hard to read.

Web Sites

Web sites are a great idea. They give people a chance to learn more about your positions and help them to keep in contact with you. Should you use a web site, remember the reason for the site and focus your content and design around your goals. Put your positions papers on your site and any other information that might help a voter make a more informed decision about you. You may also want to include a photo of yourself, some audio or video clips, and links to web sites that support your views. If your opponent has a web site, try to establish a link exchange with him or her. Another good point for having a web site is that it makes you readily available to your district. You can use email or a chat program to talk with them regularly. You might be able to find volunteers or donations through having your web site.

Business Cards

Business cards are almost necessary. They are inexpensive tools that help people remember your name and contact you. They also add a certain amount of legitimacy, which in some cases might be very important. You should be able to pick up a couple hundred for about $20.

Bumper Stickers

Bumper stickers are more optional and may be more useful in rural areas or where the main modes of transportation are automobiles. They generally are between $1 and $5 each, again, depending on the quantities and colors ordered.

Media Coverage

Interviews

Interviews are important means of getting your message heard, no matter what form they are received. However, you need to be careful of what you say. Some reporters will have an agenda, or will be trying to force you into an angle. For example, I received a few calls from reporters who wanted me to say that I had no chance of winning and other negative things. You do not have to say what they want you to say. Just keep your cool and tell them that you would rather be interviewed about the issues or play their game. If you play their game, they may still be able to catch you. They most likely have a lot more practice at it than you, and will be able to skew things so that you appear to have said something you did not. Take your time to think and speak clearly and thoughtfully. Remember that if you are not ready to give an interview you can arrange for another time. That is your right. Do not be intimidated by the reporter. Newspaper interviews are simple; you will likely be called at your contact number. You can either set up a time that is mutually convenient or conduct the interview then and there. Radio interviews are generally scheduled, so that you have time to prepare. Sometimes they are taped and sometimes they are live, know which you are being offered and prepare for it. Just remember to stay calm. Take your time to think answers through and speak slowly, deliberately and clearly. If you know the topic beforehand, think about writing a position paper on it. You will be more prepared to answer questions, if you have already thought the ideas through. TV interviews can be intimidating. Use the same basic guidelines as any other interview, except that now appearance is an important addition to the equation. Dress respectively and make yourself neat. Consider wearing a suit, women with a skirt.

Letters to the editor

By being a candidate the likelihood of having your letter printed increases. This is an excellent, low-pressure (and basically free) way to get your message out to the public. You direct the topic and have a great deal of freedom when you write a letter to the editor. It is almost like giving yourself an interview. Speeches If you are interested in giving speeches, there are outlets. Many of the local groups and clubs will be interested in you. Rotary clubs are good places to start. Some good guidelines for speaking are to write about the topics you want to discuss. You can write out the entire speech if you like, but it is not necessary, especially if you feel you do not need to as speaking more spontaneously will sound more natural to listeners. Do only what you feel comfortable with. If you are interested in improving your speaking skills, look into the local Toast Master group. There are also some resources online if you want to look for them. Walking tours Walking your district, or at least the busier parts of your district, might be a good idea. It will give you a chance to meet people in their day-to-day life and talk with them about issues. You can also use this time to meet local business owners. You might also use this time to visit homes for the elderly or other voters unable to get out. They will appreciate having company and you will have a great chance to talk about your campaign. Some might even be interested in helping you or donating money to your efforts. Attending local meetings By attending local meetings you will give yourself a chance to meet the more socially and/or politically active members of the community. You may be able to find volunteers or donations at these meetings if you keep your eyes open and talk with the people attending.

Debates

You may be able to find a television show or other media outlet that would like to cover a debate. If not, you can still set up a debate with your opponent. If you let the local media know about your debate they might decide to be present. If you would like to have a debate, contact your opponent and talk with him. You should decide upon a format and possibly some other ground rules. If you cannot get coverage your opponent might be able to get the attention for you both.

Candidate Surveys

Over the course of the election year, you will find a great number of candidate surveys. Some of them you might want to consider not submitting. For example, if you are heavily pro-choice, you might not want to fill out a survey send by a pro-life group. Why look for trouble? However, surveys are important, and should not be ignored. For some voters, it would be the only way they would even hear about you.

Volunteers

Running a campaign is hard work and if you want to keep your sanity, you might want to find some help. You can start with your close friends and family. If you are not planning on running a very active campaign, you might not want to bother finding more help. However, if you are looking to run hard, you might want to look into finding more than your immediate acquaintances.

So, where can you find volunteers? You may want to start within your political party. Go to the social events or other gatherings and ask the people there if they might be willing to spend some time on your campaign. Another place to look is at the local meetings. You might also find some help at local universities. *A note about finding student help. Look into working out an internship program with local schools. Talk with internship coordinators before the semester starts. Talk with political science professors, public relations professors, and put signs up all over the campus.

Should you manage to find some volunteers you should know what to expect from them. The best way to work with volunteers is to give them specific and well-defined tasks that relate to their past experiences or talents/interests. Remember that your volunteers are not as involved in this process as you are and are not likely to have a full understanding of what is happening. Do not expect them to know what they ought to do if you do not tell them.

Raising Funds sometimes better known as Fundraising

You should remember that your donations do not have to be in large amounts. You will find that there will be people you know willing to donate some money, even if it’s only $5 or $20. If you decide that you would like to run a very active campaign you might want to consider asking a broader base. Visit local groups and clubs; talk with the people in your community. You may also be able to get some help from your political party. They may have a list you can buy or borrow so that you can solicit local party members or people who have donated money to the party in the past. Do not be afraid to ask, most people will be will to help and if they cannot help, that is fine.

Regulations

Check into your state’s regulations to make sure you are not going to get yourself into any legal trouble. Many states have a lot of this information online. For example, Massachusetts has their information available at http://www.state.ma.us/. If you would rather you can write or call your local election department.

Reporting to the State

In Massachusetts I had to regularly file a campaign finance reform report. Do not let the form title frighten you. If you do not get too worked up about them, finance reports are not too hard. Just remember to keep your receipts.

Clean Elections Act

I’ll try to suppress my personal opinions of the “clean elections act”. Basically what it does is limit the amount a single person can donate to your campaign. If you’re running a small campaign, this can create some hardship, as it means that your friends will not be able to