When you don’t see a candidate that you want, you have to become that candidate
“When you don’t see a candidate that you want on the ballot, that’s sometimes a sign that you have to become that candidate. I hope that people won’t be as scared of doing that.”- Jim Cupples
Welcome back to our Uncontested Races blog series! In previous posts, we’ve interviewed politicians who defeated longtime incumbents and an academic that studies electoral competition. In today’s post, we focus on helping more people run for public office, specifically by making election and candidacy information more digitally accessible.
Jim Cupples is the founder of Run For Office, a free online service that helps people find local offices they may be interested in running for. The website has all the information for how to file as a candidate, including the paperwork requirements and deadlines, and even provides a free voter file. We spoke with Jim over the phone to ask him about why he started the data project and which government reforms could make things a lot easier for first-time candidates.
Why are uncontested races a problem?
Uncontested races are a problem primarily because there are a lot of people that are looking to have an impact in politics, especially local politics, which is where most of the uncontested races are, and the races that are uncontested are those potential avenues for these people to get involved as candidates. One of the things that I think has been just not as often mentioned when we talk about civic engagement is, we often talk about civic engagement in the form of voting, attending meetings, and suggesting things to our elected officials. But one of the areas that I think has been somewhat neglected is civic engagement of candidates, and having people step forward in that avenue [to run].
What races are you focusing on?
We actually switched our focus in 2017. Prior to 2017, we were collecting all the information in a given county. So, for example, we would take a completely comprehensive look at Cook County and say, “Hey, we need to know every single race that is going to occur inside Cook County at all levels of office.” And we did that. We’d figure out what was going on there as well as the next election dates and the filing windows and position descriptions. The unique challenge in that type of data collection is that you often have to project forward 2, 3, 4 years ahead of time. You really have to understand what the formulas are behind the election cycle for that office as well as the candidacy procedure. We did that for about 50 of the largest counties in the United States covering around 80 million people.
But when we were looking at our data at the end of 2016, one of the things we noticed was that there was an interest in things like school boards and some of the information on special districts wasn’t being used as much by people who were coming to our site looking for positions they could run for. We could tell this simply because we could tell what offices they were clicking on after they entered their address. We saw that the people who were using our product were more interested in school boards, municipal level positions, as well as state level positions. In 2017, we slightly [adjusted] the project and right now we’re underway to collect all publicly elected school boards in the entire country within the next couple of months. We would like to have it all done by about mid-summer.
Where do you go to look for all this information given how diffuse it is across different localities?
Oh, man, tell me about it. I wish there was a silver bullet but there really isn’t. The most effective tool that I know for data collection is noise-cancelling headphones. You have to be prepared to dig down and get in that zone where you’re going through a lot of election records and these other types of public documents that elected officials have to submit somewhere along the line. I actually go through those looking for past elections and it informs me of what’s coming up in the future.
Have you seen the number of uncontested races decrease? Do people tell you they decided to run for office after finding something out from the site?
Oh yeah, it’s been tremendously gratifying that way. There have been people that have reached out to me and told me that they ran and won several offices, so that’s really heartening. Every time someone contacts me and lets me know, that’s probably one of the best parts of working on [this].
I believe this would probably go for anyone that does a database-related project, you want to see people using your stuff, it’s the only way that makes it worthwhile. That’s another thing where talking to your team at BallotReady is such a similar feeling. You want to see, obviously, better informed voters; I want to see more candidates out there running for these uncontested positions. It’s very gratifying to see because there might be a big disparity in one way or another, whether along racial lines or say, it’s a city council that’s dominated by men, or just a variety of positions where we simply don’t have enough young people running. So I love getting diversity in all those areas, between the economic background of people who are running, age, race, gender, it should all better reflect the American population.
After doing this for so long, what are some policies or reforms that you could see that would make it a lot easier to run for office?
We have policies that are simply outdated. I would like to see better government websites, and I say that acknowledging that there are budgets and a lot of other tech considerations,, as well as a policy of making it mandatory every election notice is posted in some digital form so that people can access it. And that’s currently not the case. Our public posting laws, sometimes are things like posting in a newspaper or having something posted in city hall or a public place. That only works if you’re in a community which digitizes its newspaper and there’s a lot of people reading it. I’ve been in some communities where they have a newspaper that maybe covers the county and gets published once or twice a week, and those newspapers don’t get digitized.
I also feel that there should be a much better publication of upcoming filing windows. I’ve often seen the scenario where there’s a notice of election that goes out and the filing window may be two or three days long. That’s certainly not enough time for people to number one, gather the support they need to run, as well as, I think for first time candidates to really jump in and run. People should have at least three or four weeks of a filing window. I see no harm, no drawback in making a longer filing window.
You’ve spoken about wanting to erode the gatekeeping power of the political parties. Why is this an important aspect of your project?
There is a little gatekeeping. It’s easy to slip into. I’ve seen it happen locally as well as when I’m taking with people from around the country. People get recruited to run from a very small circle and they’re usually the same people that are involved with their county party. And that’s great — we certainly need people to be involved in those aspects. But, I do not see both major parties extending a hand to their rank and file voters and encouraging them to become candidates. I don’t see that in the major parties nor in the minor parties. So there has to be a better degree of comfort that these party leaders have in allowing this information to be accessible to everyone.
I’m a registered Democrat, I’ve been a Democrat since I was 18 years old, but I do have criticism for my very own party for never developing a tool like this when I know they’ve had the information as well as the resources, but have just chosen not to do so. It’s too bad because they would be stronger if they allowed their rank and file to become candidates as opposed to how it is now.
Next, we’ll be interviewing Professor Dick Simpson from the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In addition to his work in academia, Professor Simpson is known for running and winning as a reform candidate for 44th Ward Alderman in the 1970s. Make sure to keep an eye out for the blog post!
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By Eileen Li, BallotReady Intern