$4,020, or The cost of doing business in local elections.
Running for office is hard. It is mentally and physically exhausting. It alienates loved ones and ends marriages. It is an isolating, demoralizing, and vulnerable space that leaves one with a healthy dose of post-traumatic stress from which they are not likely to recover without an even healthier dose of professional therapy.
Running for office is hard. And it’s even harder when you don’t have money. Cold hard cash is the single most defining factor in any political campaign, and that hasn’t changed since the days of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. It doesn’t matter if you’re running for District Attorney or Dog Catcher, in a country with 400 million residents or a town of 4,000. You need to pay to play.
Most often, when we consider this axiom of campaign life, we do so with regard to the volume of dollars needed to reach thousands of voters with mailers, digital ads, and (god help us) lawn signs. This alone presents a highly inequitable challenge to community-based, grassroots candidates who lack the resources to compete with the deep bank accounts and long contact lists of the more well-heeled candidates who tend to win public office in this country.
What tends to be forgotten are the relatively mundane costs of simply getting a campaign off the ground. Any Silicon Valley campaign hack worth their hourly billing rate will tell you that running a campaign is like shepherding a startup company with a built-in 6-18 month exit strategy. And the costs of doing business are significant — in some cases prohibitive — to the point that many potentially fantastic candidates don’t even consider taking the leap.
For the sake of brevity, let’s look at one of the most fundamental and unavoidable expenses of any campaign: the candidate statement. This is that 200-400 word manifesto that appears in your sample ballot. It is the lone piece of messaging that every candidate will send to every voter in their jurisdiction, regardless of their campaign’s targeting strategy. It provides every candidate with an equal opportunity to tell their story and make their case to voters in a uniform space without pretense, pomp, or circumstance. And compared to the costs of sending direct mail these days, it’s a bargain!
For example, in San José Unified School District Trustee Area 3, where there should be a highly competitive race this November, the fee is $4,020 for a candidate statement that will reach roughly 17,000 households and 31,000 voters. The base cost of sending a simple 4x6” postcard to the same universe would be about $5,000, not to mention the sweat equity of addressing, stamping, and getting it out the door. And there’s no way you’re fitting 400 words on a postcard. More likely, you’re looking at spending about $1 for every mailer delivered to every household. It doesn’t take a math major to figure out that gets expensive real quick.
There’s also the trust factor, which you can’t really cost out in dollars. Voters are more likely to believe the “official” information they receive in the sample ballot than the consultant-driven mailers they get from the candidates themselves. So the candidate statement begins to take on a meaning even larger than cash. But $4,020 is still a lot of money!
In many cases, candidates need to pony up this filing fee before they’ve had a chance to raise any money for their campaigns. That means they need access to thousands of dollars in liquid assets, which most folks in my generation and younger lack — particularly those with a healthy passion for public and/or nonprofit service. (In other words, the ones most likely to run for office.) Let’s be real: most of us don’t have more than $500 in the bank at any given moment.
It’s all good though. The school district probably subsidizes these fees for candidates. In the greater scheme of a $330M annual budget, it would be a relatively minor expense of public dollars for ensuring a healthy democratic process. Right?
Of course not. And if you thought differently, you’ve probably never read my blogs before.
No, sad to say, SJUSD doesn’t even front a portion of the fee. And to make matters worse, they force candidates to pay for a 400-word statement when a 200-word statement would “only” cost them $2,850. Because I was taught at SJUSD schools, without using a calculator, I can tell you that’s $1,170 a candidate can’t spend on other needs like voter data or a Dear Neighbor letter. But I shouldn’t bag on San José Unified for this. After all, they have bigger problems right now. And they’re not alone by a long shot.
A highly unscientific survey of local school districts conducted by the author found that 80% of districts don’t fund any portion of candidate statements, and those that do only fund a portion. For example, Palo Alto Unified subsidizes 50% of their candidates’ statements, which run $4,300 for the 400-word variety. (Although, one could argue that the average Palo Altan likely has more than $500 in the bank.) Want to run for Santa Clara County Board of Education? Have fun digging up $6,050!
Simply put: This is silly. If school districts and their governing boards truly believe in public engagement and want to encourage a healthy democratic process, they should fully fund candidate statements for anyone who’s willing to throw themselves into the traumatizing trials and tribulations of campaign life.
And if a school district doesn’t want to spend the money? Good news: there’s a middle ground. Candidates for higher office are allowed to collect signatures from voters in their districts to offset the cost of their filing fee. Obviously the pandemic makes signature gathering a bit of a challenge right now, but this is well worth consideration for future elections.
Running for office is hard. But it doesn’t have to be as hard as it is. More to come on this. Stay tuned to this space.