Voter Info | Why Don't More People Run For Local Office?
The answer isn't as simple as you might think
Our local the election is coming up on April 1, 2023, and there are many elected offices for which you could run if you are so inclined. In order to become a candidate, you must get nomination papers from the Town Clerk’s office by February 8, collect a certain number of signatures (50 for town-wide office and 10 from within your precinct for Town Meeting), and return the papers by February 11.
If you’ve been thinking about running for office, there is still time!
Most of our town’s residents, though, don’t run for office. Often, elections are uncontested, and it feels like we are always trying to fill the Town Meeting ballot.
The two loudest arguments I‘ve heard for people not running for town office are that people are happy with the way things are, and that people don’t care about local government. While this might be true for a small subset of people, both arguments are an oversimplification of a very nuanced issue.
The reluctance to run actually comes from a number of sources, the most common of which I’ll outline here.
Running for elected office takes time and, often, money and name recognition. This makes individuals who don’t have a huge network from whom to fundraise, or who have jobs with long or nonstandard hours and/or family responsibilities, or who don’t feel like they have a chance of winning against someone who’s been in town politics for years, reluctant to run for office.
People often don’t know where to start or how to campaign. Especially looking in from the outside, it can seem overwhelming to try and understand all that goes into our government and systems and figure out how you can fit in.
Individuals don’t feel connected to the community and/or don’t see how they could make a difference.
Folks from minority or marginalized backgrounds don’t see themselves reflected in elected officials and don’t find the system welcoming.
People who have experienced trauma or discrimination can be concerned about the effect of being in the public eye on their mental health or on their family.
Scheduling of required meetings, and the requirement to be there in person, conflicts with other responsibilities.
One of my express goals in writing the Buzz is to encourage more of our residents (including you!) to become involved in local government. Burlington residents are a diverse group with many and varied experiences across all dimensions of life. The more our town government reflects this wealth of diversity, the better off we all are.
But there’s no denying that these barriers exist for many in our community, and the cost of overcoming them might seem disproportionate to the reward that comes from running for office.
Often the problem is framed as a “them” issue. I’ve heard all of the below arguments and more from people in local government:
“If they cared enough, they’d run for office.”
“If they really wanted to, they’d make it work.”
“We can’t make them run.”
“They should wait until their lives are more permissive to involvement.”
“They can get childcare and show up just like I do.”
Not only are these arguments an oversimplification of a complex issue, but they also are represent a very narrow viewpoint that dismisses the reality of many of our residents.
Assuming people don’t care or don’t want to be involved because they have a plate full of responsibilities—that, in itself, creates an “us vs. them” mentality that separates people who have the privilege to just show up every week or two from those who have to rework their entire lives to make one meeting work.
No, we can’t make people from diverse backgrounds run for office. But we can encourage folks to do so and take active steps to ensure Town government is a welcoming place to be for people from all backgrounds.
Just because someone’s life is busy doesn’t mean their voices don’t deserve to be heard—and I’d venture to say that we need more representation of people with multiple jobs and complex family responsibilities, not less. Of course, one way to encourage that is to have the option to participate remotely in these local governing boards. There are articles to this effect waiting to move through Town Meeting, and an emergency mandate from the state allowing hybrid access. But that mandate expires on March 31, 2023, and the Town Meeting articles have been withdrawn until at least May, and so things don’t look promising on that front in the short-term.
Learn more about barriers to running for office.