Anyone who cares about electoral politics will tell you how important it is to vote downticket. But actually doing it can be daunting. You hear a lot about who’s running for President, maybe even who’s running for Senator or Governor. But how do you decide between the twelve candidates for judge, the five candidates for city council, the seven candidates for school board? It could take weeks researching their positions and records, and you probably don’t have that kind of time.
I hear you. I have a trick for that. I’ve been using it for years. First, here are some reasons you should care — like, really, really care.
Local elections profoundly affect your everday life. What’s taught in public schools; whether your landlord can raise your rent any time they want; whether streets and sewers are repaired (and which ones get attention first); whether racist cops are disciplined; whether the community college is funded; which buildings can be torn down and put up; whether your city has a minimum wage that reflects economic reality; whether AirBnB gets to ignore hotel and housing laws; whether the homeless people on your block will be sheltered or arrested — all of this and much more gets decided on the local level.
Local elections profoundly affect other people’s everyday lives. See above. If these issues don’t personally and immediately affect you, they affect your neighbors, your co-workers, your friends, your family.
Local and state elections are how national candidates are born. If you want good progressives in national offices in twenty years, start by getting good progressives in local offices now. Most elected officials on the national level get their start in local politics. There are exceptions, of course. Donald Trump has never held office in his life, and while Hillary Clinton had extensive experience in politics before she was elected to anything, her first elected position was in the Senate. But in general, voting in local elections now is a great way to get national candidates in the future who you actually want to vote for.
Local elections move the national party. If you’re wondering how the Republican Party moved so far to the right, look at local elections. The Tea Party got into school boards and city councils across the country. There are other factors, of course — for one thing, the Tea Party has had significant national funding from big corporations. But to a great extent, local elections are how the Tea Party got into power.
So if you want the national Democratic Party to move further to the left, a really good way to do that is to support progressive candidates in local and state elections — especially in primaries. It lets the party know that voters really do want progressive candidates, and will support them. And it lets the party know that progressive voters will consistently vote — not just every four years when we’re deciding on the president.
So now you’re convinced (I hope). Local and state elections are important. But there are so many of them! How do you decide? In one word:
In a few more words: Find some organizations you trust, whose values and positions are more or less in line with yours — and see who they endorse.
You know all that time it takes to research candidates and ballot initiatives, the time you don’t have? For many organizations, that is literally their job. They do have the time. And they have the knowledge. In many cases, they’ve actually worked with these people. They know that Jane Doe is great on health care, less great on gentrification, and knows City Hall backwards and forwards. They know that Richard Roe is solid on the issues but is a hostile pain in the ass to work with and has a hard time getting anything done. They’ve done the research you don’t have time to do.
Here’s my trick. I look at the endorsements of three or four endorsing organizations. Tenants’ rights groups, TBLG groups, environmental groups, progressive alternative newspapers — you get the idea. I compare them. If they all agree, and I don’t personally know enough about the candidate or initiative to disagree, I do what they recommend. If they don’t agree, I look at the arguments they make for why they’re endorsing the way they are, and see who I agree with.
In San Francisco elections, this usually takes about a hour, maybe two. If I’m super-busy and don’t have that time, I just pick a couple of endorsing organizations to compare and contrast. If I’m completely and utterly swamped, I just pick one.
It’s less than ideal. I think local and state elections are really important — see above — and I do have reservations about trusting my vote to someone else. But if I don’t vote downticket at all, I’m doing that anyway. I’m trusting my vote to everyone else who happens to be voting. I have a lot more reservations about that.