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When major political events like a presidential election happen, everyone’s attention turns to democracy and politics. But when people think about participating in government, most of us still tend to see ourselves as voters rather than as candidates.
In Suburban Cook County, Illinois, the County Clerk’s office is trying to change that. Its Running for Office Starter Kit (RFO) was born out of the belief that getting on the ballot should be within the reach of every interested citizen.
“Running for office should be easy,” says Cook County Clerk David Orr. “Unfortunately, it’s more daunting than it should be. With our new Running for Office Starter Kit, so much of the information you need is at your fingertips.”
Launched in the fall of 2016 to help prospective candidates file for the April 2017 Consolidated Election, the RFO was set up by Director of Elections Noah Praetz, Deputy Chief of Staff Abdelnasser Rashid, and Candidate Services Manager Colleen Gleason.
Breaking down barriers
Even though the word “suburban” might make it sound small, Suburban Cook County is one of the largest election jurisdictions in the United States. The Clerk’s office serves some 1.5 million voters in 126 municipalities, making it the third largest jurisdiction in the country after Los Angeles and Houston.
That’s all good, but in recent years, David and his team have identified a problem in local elections: low participation when it comes to running for office. “In April 2015, more than 63 percent of the 699 contests in Suburban Cook County were uncontested,” Noah observes. “We think one reason why is that getting on the ballot is often much harder than it should be.”
The fact is, there’s a lot involved in running for office, and there are plenty of pitfalls for candidates who don’t carefully cross their t’s and dot their i’s.
“You can face costly legal challenges against your paperwork,” says Noah, explaining that even the most innocent filing mistakes can be damaging. “Failure to staple petitions or notarize certain pages can doom your candidacy,” he admits.
Breaking down barriers and helping people weather the storm of running for office was the reason for creating the RFO. What they wanted to build, basically, was a lookup tool to provide citizens with information about public offices that they could run for and materials to streamline the candidate filing process.
It was a longtime goal of David and Noah, and in 2015, Abdelnasser began making the RFO a reality by building its first prototype.
The message behind the project, Noah explains, was to say to aspiring officeholders, “If you want to serve, we can help make the first step far less daunting.”
Combining data and design
If you’re a citizen contemplating a run for office, using the RFO is incredibly simple. When you visit the Running for Office website, you start by entering your home address. Once you do, the RFO identifies the districts you’re in and lists the offices that you can run for.
If you find one that sparks your interest, you can read details about the office, the district, and the filing requirements. For park, school, and library offices, you can create a candidate packet. For municipal and township offices, there are links to access candidate materials from the relevant authority. Once you have your materials, you can prepare to file your paperwork and launch your candidacy.
As you might imagine, data is at the heart of the Kit. But Abdelnasser emphasizes that what makes the RFO truly effective is the way that it combines data with design.
“The tool is driven by the data,” he explains. “But the data alone would be useless if the interface was confusing and difficult to use. So we spent a lot of time making sure the tool was easy to use and the information easy to access and understand.”
Impacting local democracy
Since debuting the tool in October, the Clerk’s office has been pleased by the response to the RFO.
“We’re very happy with how it has been used and we received lots of positive feedback,” reports Abdelnasser. “We also got ideas for improvement and have made a few changes based on those.”
In addition to verbal feedback, Noah and Abdelnasser have collected data on how aspiring candidates have actually used it, and the numbers are really encouraging.
The data shows, for one thing, that a lot of people are using the Kit. Between October and December 2016, 406 people created a candidate packet. Many more, no doubt, also used the RFO for information gathering without taking the step of making a packet.
“This is an online tool with a positive and measurable offline impact,” Abdelnasser states. “It leads to real action that impacts our democracy.”
RFO data also indicates that people who download packets are quite likely to ultimately file to get on the ballot. For example, of the 288 people who created school board packets, 207 of them ended up filing. That rate -- 72% -- shows that people who use the RFO aren’t just doing it out of curiosity but are actually using it for the reason it was created: to run for office!
“We’re seeing a high conversion rate of people going all the way to the candidate filing process,” Abdelnasser observes. “For us, that’s one indication that it works.”
Another exciting finding is the numbers of new candidates as compared to incumbents. Of those 207 people who filed for school offices, 61% were new candidates. This means that the Kit already seems to be helping to bring some fresh faces to the ballot.
And who’s using the tool? If age is any indicator, there’s a good amount of diversity among users. The youngest person who created a candidate packet was 19, and the oldest was 79, with a mean age of 47.5 years.
Reaching its goals
The Consolidated Election isn’t until next month, but it’s not too early to say that the RFO is already reaching its goals. By simplifying the first steps of running for office, it’s helped to support suburban Chicagoans in pursuing leadership positions. Even better, there’s evidence that the Kit is encouraging people to seek public office who haven’t done so before.
Looking at the Kit, you might assume it would be difficult to create or would require a big budget. But Abdelnasser says that wasn’t the case: “We used in-house developers and our staff curated the data from the disparate sources, allowing us to keep costs at a minimum.”
If you’re interested in creating an RFO for your own community, he’s happy to help you get started with the first steps. “If others want to do it,” he says, “we would suggest not to recreate the wheel. We’re willing to share the data and the source code that powers the application.”
If you’d like to take him up on his offer or ask any questions, you can contact him at email@example.com.
Helping citizens become candidates was a major goal driving the creation of the Running for Office Starter Kit. What tools or best practices have you created to help aspiring officeholders? Share your experience with us at firstname.lastname@example.org.