Local Elections

Margaret Brodkin
July 28, 2000

Elections are democracy's unique and great opportunity for public discussion. They are the one time when the state does half the work for advocates. Elections:

  • create a forum for debate
  • capture the attention of elected and would-be-elected officials
  • reach every single voter with educational materials
  • draw media attention to issues that are often overlooked.

By using elections strategically and cleverly, advocates can accomplish more, while expending fewer resources, than at any other time of year. This is particularly true at the local level, where the link between the electorate and the candidates is immediate and direct. Possible strategies for child advocates are endless—from quick and simple (making bumper stickers that say "I'm for Kids and I Vote") to far-reaching (placing a child-friendly initiative on the ballot).

If you are part of an organization that advocates for children in your community, consider the following ideas:

Educate the voters
Help child-friendly voters get involved by keeping them informed. Useful strategies include publishing suggested questions for voters to ask candidates. Specific questions are more effective than general questions. The list of questions you develop can be distributed to the general public, and to organizations that endorse candidates.

A variation on this strategy is to develop a litmus test for determining if a candidate is child-friendly or not. The test will be different for each community, but might include such things as: supports funding for after school programs in three middle schools, supports a bond measure to improve playgrounds.

An effective way to push candidates to take a stand on children's issues is to publicize the phone numbers of candidates' headquarters, and urge people to call and ask for a copy of each candidate's position paper on children's issues. When our organization used this approach for the first time, every candidate in the race responded by developing such a position paper.

Publicize the dates and times of candidate forums and appearances. Each one is an opportunity for asking questions and pushing candidates to refine their positions.

Written questionnaires for candidates provide great material for voter education. To make best use of candidate questionnaires:


  • Ask candidates questions that are as specific as possible, so that voters can distinguish among candidates.
  • Put limits on the number of words allowed in the answers.
  • Publish the candidate answers to your questions as widely as resources permit.
  • Use written answers to hold candidates accountable after the election is over.

A low cost way to get election-related information out to the public is through letters to the editor. It is perfectly legal for a non-profit to write a letter about why the passage of a school bond, for instance, is essential to the well-being of the community's children.

Because the media is the public's primary means of learning about issues and candidates, it makes a lot of sense to spend considerable energy educating both political reporters and editorial boards. Consider organizing delegations of child advocates to meet with editorial boards to outline important issues.

Educate the candidates
Local candidate forums on children's issues can give child advocates a big "bang for the buck" during election season. There are many ways to organize a forum. Some of Coleman's best events have involved kids themselves asking questions (this usually gets the media interested).

Some rules of thumb for a well-run candidate forum:

  • Keep it short (about an hour—no more than 90 minutes)
  • Be fair—give everyone equal time to the second.
  • Ask specific questions—some pre-prepared, some spontaneous.
  • Allow for candidate interchange.
  • Have a structured, snappy format—giving candidates only short time to answer (political rhetoric gets boring really fast).
  • Work the media—do SOMETHING (anything) unique to get them there.
  • Make it fun and colorful (balloons, signs, banners).
  • Build a crowd—politicians may not remember a thing that gets said in a particular forum, but they will always remember how many people were there.

Even if a forum isn't practical for your group, you can hold meetings with candidates. During election season, candidates are more open to meeting with constituents than any other time. Child advocates should seize the opportunity to have briefing sessions on children's issues.

One of my favorite strategies can be integrated into many of the other activities listed here. Ask candidates to sign pledges with commitments to kids. Having a large audience of voters observe the pledge signing request always inspires candidates.

Take a stand
One of the simplest election strategies is to publish a slate card giving your organization's position on child-related issues on the ballot. Sadly, this strategy is rarely used by child advocates, in the mistaken belief that it is not legal for non-profit agencies to take positions on ballot issues. The slate card can be produced in-house and sent to a small mailing list, or it can be professionally produced and distributed widely. In any case, it puts the organization on the political map, educates voters, and often has the effect of bringing child-friendly voters to the polls.

Perhaps the most direct and far-reaching way for child advocates to use elections is to create a needed policy and see that it is put on the ballot. Naturally, this strategy requires a different level of political organization, usually the creation of a separate political committee to run a campaign. This article cannot do justice to the complexities of this approach, but given the potential benefits, this is a strategy that should be used more often by local child advocates.

Get young people involved
There are a number of ways to involve high school students (or younger) in the electoral process. For the past the past 8 years, Coleman has sponsored Youth Vote, in which thousands of high school students vote in a mock election several days before the actual election. Our agency's youth group spends the summer studying the issues that will be on the ballot, developing a youth-oriented ballot handbook (with pro and con positions on each measure) for social studies classes, working with teachers, and interviewing candidates. Eighty-five percent of students report that they are more likely to vote as adults as a result of participating in Youth Vote.

A recent ballot measure in California that vastly increased punishments for juvenile crime (Proposition 21) galvanized thousands of youth throughout the state. Their rallying cry was "Schools Not Jails." While the measure won statewide, it was actually defeated in the communities where youth were most organized and visible. The youth involvement would never have happened without the support of community-based youth organizations throughout the state.

Consider PACs and political clubs
The children's movement has not yet experimented much with more partisan methods of political involvement. But San Francisco has had two fledgling efforts that might shed light on the possibilities: The Parents Lobby is a small group of politically active parents, which interviews candidates for School Board and then sends out a slate card. It is registered as a PAC. Democratic Action for Children and Youth is a politically active club that focuses only on children's issues, and has become a political force in the community by endorsing candidates and pushing elected officials to support child-friendly legislation. This is new territory for children's advocates?don't be afraid to explore it.

Final hints
As you think about which election-related activities are most suited to your organization or to you personally, remember:


  • Creativity counts—Avoid being timid. Elections are opportunities to push the envelope and grab public attention.


  • Know your community's election culture—There is no cookie-cutter approach. What is considered in good taste in a politically active, liberal city like San Francisco may not be effective in Omaha. Issues that are "hot" in one community may be completely uninteresting to another.


  • Politics is okay—Being politically active and politically partisan are two entirely different things. While non-profits cannot take positions on candidates and can only spend a certain percent of resources on other political activity, most organizations are far more cautious than need be.


  • Piggyback on other election activities—When an issue you care about is raised by a candidate, write a letter to the editor; volunteer to participate in election forums that need a panelist with a child policy perspective; educate reporters eager to learn about a controversy they can query candidates about.


  • Democracy is infectious—There is nothing quite as exhilarating as asking a candidate for public office a question for the first time.Getting potential voters jazzed about civic participation can not only strengthen the children's constituency, but it is a lot of fun for everyone involved!


Margaret Brodkin is executive director of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth in San Francisco, California.