How to Research a Local Political Race

Back in 2014, I wrote a post with the title “Methodology” that talked some about how I research races with an eye towards helping people trying to figure out where to dig and what questions to ask. I think it’s probably time to update that post, so below you will find my advice (hopefully suitable for people all over the country) on how to figure out who you want to vote for in a local election.

Local races are incredibly important. People tend to focus on national races, and while those sure are important, your local representatives often affect your day-to-day quality of life in much more tangible ways. Local elected officials make decisions that affect library hours, school curricula, snowplowing, zoning rules, pothole repair. Pay attention to these races! Learn about who’s running, vote all the way down the ballot, and encourage your friends to do the same.

1. Get a list of the races and candidates who will be on the ballot.

In Minnesota, you can do this via the Secretary of State’s “Find My Ballot” page. If you don’t live in Minnesota, try searching “find my ballot” and your state to see if you have something similar.

2. Look up candidate websites.

When MN candidates file, they have the option of writing down a URL, and if they do that, there may be a link right on the page that comes up on the Secretary of State’s site. If there’s no link, or the link leads to a nonexistent website, try searching the candidate name + the office, or the candidate name + your town. Sometimes people running for a minor office will use a Facebook page as their campaign page.

Take a look at the websites you find. In particular, look for the following:

  • Endorsements. If one’s endorsed by the Republicans and one by the Democrats, that may be all you need to know.
  • Experience. Not always required for a low-level office, but I like candidates who’ve at least shown some interest in local governance before running — maybe by serving on a city or county committee, fundraising for the library, etc.
  • Accomplishments, if this is someone running for re-election. Do you like the things they claim credit for? Do you think they’ve done good work?
  • Big red flags. Racist and antisemitic dogwhistles, repeating gross urban legends, a school board candidate who puts a lot of emphasis on “parental rights,” anti-vax stuff.
  • Small red flags. Candidates who just don’t seem to know anything about the issues. Candidates who repeatedly say “WE THE PEOPLE” in all-capital letters or use a lot of patriotic stock art.

Other useful things you’ll often find on candidate websites: a bio (which will give you information about past experiences that might be applicable to them serving in the job); links to their social media; some information on contacting the candidate (very useful if you have follow-up questions)

3. Look at other information online.

If you search online for both candidate names, sometimes you’ll find questionnaires from newspapers or organizations. These can provide you with a bunch of side-by-side information to compare.

Searching for the candidate name + location sometimes turns up other details about a candidate, from old news articles to lawsuits. Sometimes this is helpful, sometimes it’s useless.

If you go to your library’s public information databases, you can often use your library card to search your local newspaper. This can turn up information about all kinds of things — old letters to the editor, news articles about scandals from years past, arrests.

If you look on Facebook, sometimes you can find a candidate’s personal Facebook page. Some candidates lock those down or sanitize them heavily, but if they don’t, you can learn a lot about a person from the memes they re-share.

If you look on LinkedIn, often you can find someone’s professional resume, and that can be extremely helpful to sort out what some of the stuff in their bio means. Lots of people will call themselves “educators” and sometimes that means they worked as a professional teacher in a public school and other times it means something that is absolutely not that.

4. Look for candidate forums.

There may be community forums where the candidates are invited to show up and answer questions. Sometimes you have to actually go, but usually these days forums are recorded and posted online later for people to view.

5. Talk to door-knockers.

Depending on the size of the race, you might get door-knocked by the candidate and be able to ask whatever questions you have. More often door-knockers are volunteers. My standard questions for people who volunteer on behalf of a candidate is, “can you tell me what you like about [candidate]? You are giving up your free time to do work for them — what about them inspired you to do that?” This is a question almost everyone can answer, and the answers can be revealing.

6. Contact the candidates.

Most candidates provide information on how to contact them — either an e-mail address or a phone number. If you contact a candidate, I would strongly encourage you to pick one question to focus on. If it’s a list of a dozen questions, they will think, “I don’t have time to do this right now — I’ll set it aside for later” and then they’ll forget. If it’s a complicated question and you send an e-mail, you may also have better luck if you tell them you’d be happy to talk on the phone.

Regardless of the question, if you send an e-mail, many candidates will ask if they can call you. Partly this is because they want to start by asking you a little about yourself. There are some good reasons for this: a lot of issues provoke related but varying concerns and they want to know where to focus their answer. They also want to demonstrate to you that they are a good listener and that they empathize with your struggles.

7. Talk to your friends and neighbors.

One of the things about local races is that a lot of people struggle to find information about them. So if you have done some research, reaching out to other people voting in your area is not pushing your politics on people, it is a generous public service. “It can be hard to find information on the Dogcatcher race, so since I did a bunch of digging, I wanted to share what I found!”

You can also reach out for information. Ask your neighbors if they know anything about the people running. (If they don’t, you can circle back with information you find.)

8. Do not feel like you need to research every possible aspect of every candidate on your ballot.

There are a lot of options here and I cannot emphasize enough that you do not need to go dig up everyone’s LinkedIn resume to be an informed voter! My first step is always to look at party endorsements. If there’s a Republican and a Democrat, that’s all I really need to know. If there’s an incumbent candidate who hasn’t been at the center of a scandal, who’s endorsed by people you like, and their opponent on the ballot has no website? You have done your due diligence! It’s fine! You can vote for the person who sounds OK vs. the person who doesn’t care enough about the race to make information easy for voters to find. Life is short: if Candidate A has a well-organized website that describes sensible goals you approve of and Candidate B’s website has a giant animated gif of a waving US flag and zero policy ideas, you do not have to watch the forum unless you want to.

It’s good to be an informed voter. But all of us make these choices with incomplete information and that is also okay. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” is good advice in a lot of situations — including voting using the information you have to select the best candidate.

My name is Naomi Kritzer and I’m a SF/F writer and an opinionated person with a blog. Since sometime in the early 2000s, I’ve been researching local races (first in Minneapolis, later in both Minneapolis and St. Paul) and sharing the information I find with my community. If you do the same in your own community, you may find this very time consuming but people really do find it super useful! You can find more about my novels here.