In the upcoming elections, there are myriad opportunities to make a difference in our local communities, whether by voting, volunteering, or even running for office.
“There are over 50 positions this year, all of which are non-partisan,” says Judi Johannesen, Chair of Benton County Democrats. We’re looking for quality candidates to run—people whose values align with ours—to help get elected, because we want to see those values reflected in the community.”
What makes a “quality candidate”?
Johannesen says that candidates should value:
● The wellbeing of all people
● Fairness and democracy
● A healthy planet
“We aren’t necessarily looking for Democrats with a capital ‘D’ to step up,” says Justin Raffa, Elections Committee Chair for Benton County Democrats. “We’re looking for people that have a heart for service, that are community-oriented, that want to be public servants, and that want to make our communities a better place for all of our residents now and into the future.”
Raffa learned all about what it takes to stand up for his community when he ran for Benton County Commissioner last year. Since then, he has remained very active in local politics, and he shares Johannesen’s passion for helping to find and nurture potential candidates.
What makes local elections so important?
“I want people to understand that it is the local level electeds who make decisions that have the biggest impact on you and me—not the president in the White House, not our congress members—it’s the local [elected officials] that have the most direct impact on our communities. So if we prioritize any races, it should be those,” says Raffa.
“The city councils, the fire districts, the hospital districts—it’s all the smaller offices that keep everything going, and it’s often the place where people get their start in political life,” says Johanessen. “We’re looking for quality candidates in order to run someone in every one of those races so that voters have an option.
“It’s really important for democracy for voters to have options.... If one party dominates, no matter who—I would even be unhappy for it to be all Democrats running—that’s not democracy. Democracy is where you rely on the collective choice of all voters to select the best government for them.”
What makes this year’s elections different?
“There are over 50 seats up for re-election this year,” says Raffa. “Every City Council and School Board has seats open.
“These elections are nonpartisan, and traditionally the parties stay out of them, but what we’re seeing now is the local Republicans... are going to run hard-right, ultra-conservative candidates of their own to run for these seats. I am worried that all these local nonpartisan jurisdictions are going to move farther and farther to the right, and that’s problematic. People are running for the wrong reasons.”
Should you run for office?
“I am living proof of someone who was very reticent to run for years,” says Raffa. “People harbor a lot of fear and anxiety about the process.
“The fear that when you enter the political arena, you have these contentious, polarizing issues that are going to bring all this angst…. When we look at local, non-partisan races, that generally is not the case.”
The Benton County Democrats have already held one open house Zoom forum for anyone interested in learning more about running for office or volunteering. Johannesen and Raffa say that there are always opportunities for campaign volunteers. They plan to hold another open house forum on Monday, April 19 at 6:30pm.
Raffa says that the Zoom forum is a low-pressure environment. “We’re not going to twist people’s arms and force them to make a decision on the spot,” he says. “We just want to provide them with information.
“I’m trying to demystify the process for people. This is very doable, and now that I’ve been through it, it’s not as hard or scary as I thought. It’s very manageable.”
“Connect with the political party of your choice and get some coaching,” says Johannesen. “[There are] volunteers with tools to help your candidacy be a successful one.”
Raffa says that volunteers can walk you through legal hurdles and help with other campaign necessities such as fundraising and canvassing. “We can provide resources to candidates, and help them build a team so they don’t feel like they have to go it alone,” he says.
Why should we vote in local elections?
Even if you have no interest in running for local office, Benton County Democrats want to encourage everyone to get out and vote. “Exponentially, our votes have much more weight at the local level,” says Raffa.
Johannesen says that voter turnout tends to be low for local elections, even though “your day-to-day experience of your life is much more influenced by your local choices than it is by faraway Washington D.C. choices.”
She says that Washington State is a paragon in terms of disclosure of information about candidates, which helps voters research their choices.
“Our government has some pretty important tools for people to be able to use to research our candidates,” says Johannesen. “The Public Disclosure Commission (www.pdc.wa.gov) includes information about… what kind of wealth [candidates] have and where that wealth comes from.”
Washington State also has tools which make voting more accessible, such as vote by mail and online voter registration.
“If we don’t get involved, it's the same old people occupying these seats, and it starts to look fairly homogeneous,” says Raffa. “It tends to be older, white, cis-gendered men who end up being the decisionmakers. They hold onto these seats in perpetuity because, for whatever reason, no one steps up to challenge them.”
“Everyone has a voice,” says Johannesen. “The best decisions are made by all voices participating, not some elite voices making all the calls.”
May 21st is the end of filing week, when candidates have to officially announce.
For more information about volunteering, voting, or running for office, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also attend the Zoom open house forum on Monday, April 19 at 6:30pm: fb.com/bencodems
For more information about the nationwide effort to create more diverse local elections, visit contesteveryrace.com.
Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash