I Ran for School Board, Lost, and Still Won

Spread the science

Let’s start with values. I think it’s pretty important to have an impact in the places that we live. Although a lot of my work, including PubTrawlr, has a global focus, the core idea is that the evidence that we synthesize can be scaled down to help individuals working on small-scale projects do their work better.

I also realize that I can talk a big game, and if I truly believe the things that I say, I should be willing to put those beliefs out there. So, last winter, I decided to run for what many consider the most accessible public office: School Board.  The election was on May 18th, and I didn’t win.

Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what I’ve learned during my campaign.

Get a Mentor. Navigating any election cycle can be confusing. Although the barriers to getting on the ballot for local elections are much lower than other offices, there are still policies and regulations that have to be followed. For example, I had to redo my ballot petition three times because people filled out their information incorrectly. For these small bureaucratic problems, I wish I had had more guidance.

I should say that people offered guidance, I just didn’t always ask for help for the fear of looking unprepared. The egg was on my face though, and I caused myself more stress and problems in the long run.

The Relevance of Social Media. In order to get votes, I had to be able to get my message out. I did some of the traditional things like print up signs, set up a website, and respond to interview questions from local media outlets.

What I found to be the most helpful way to connect to voters was through Facebook. I made sure to monitor the local community group as a way to both understand local issues but also to chime in when I had something of value to offer. Facebook, more so than other platforms, was the preferred method of the community-at-large.

School Board elections may or may not be politicized: Many people reached out to me during the campaign and asked for my opinion on all sorts of things: transgender rights, critical race theory, fiscal philosophy, and more. And it’s good to have an involved and engaged electorate. What I was surprised with was the extent to which these emotionally laden issues dominated how people evaluated candidates.

I guess I was naïve. I was expected to have to know a bit more about tax policy and the ongoing saga with the transportation depot. Nope, the hot button issues have filtered down from the national conversation to local decision-making.

The mixed bag of cross-listing. Here in Pennsylvania, we have a closed primary system. That means that only registered Republicans can vote for Republicans, Democrats for Democrats, and so on. Independents can’t vote in primaries at all. The purpose is to prevent people from crossing party lines and sabotaging quality candidates.

However, for some of the smaller offices, people are allowed to cross-list; that is, appear on both ballots. This is generally considered best practice. I tried to cross-list onto the Republican ballot but made a tactical error in how I circulated the nomination petition, and it could not be accepted.

A happy accident? Based on the conversations that I had with people, I think it was clear what my overall viewpoints were. Would it be ethical to seek the nomination of a party that I don’t agree with on many points? Or, should I have been more pragmatic and sought whatever means necessary to get into office and then help enact real change? I don’t know the answer.

I did do a little math, though. The graph below shows the relationship between Republican and Democratic votes for the candidates who did cross-file.

Exeter elections results — Democratic votes vs. Republican votes

I was surprised with how linear that the relationship was, which suggested that partisanship was not as big of a deal as it originally seemed. Using this data (which is admittedly super small) I predicted how many votes I would have gotten had I cross-filed. Before computing, I had to adjust the Republican votes by 12.5% down. I did this because I assumed the same overall number of people would have voted, and I would have siphoned votes off from all candidates evenly. Of course, this is an assumption.

Predicted Republican Votes, had I cross-listed.

I’m the orange dot above. According to this model, cross-filing wouldn’t have made a difference, since only the top four go through. This suggests that my candidacy had other problems beyond the ballot listing.

It is still possible to listen. I was involved in a Facebook conversation with someone who was against mask-wearing. I was mildly pushing back, and the conversation was going about as well as these things do. However, I remember some of my old clinical psychology and appreciative inquiry skills and decided to shift tracks and get curious. I have an excerpt of the conversation below.

I’m sure that I didn’t convert this person as a voter, but at least someone listened to them.

Okay, but what does this have to do with implementation? Earlier this year, I read Twitter and Tear Gas by Zeynep Tufekci. This book described the way that social movements develop and change in this age of social media. Zeynep specifically calls out three different types of capacity that all movements need:

  1. Narrative Capacity: the ability to tell their story
  2. Disruptive Capacity: the ability to command the attention of people
  3. Electoral Capacity: the ability to tap into traditional levers of power

The idea of electoral capacity wormed its way into my brain because this is not often addressed by those in social services. Being able to advocate and use these methods of power, be they the mayor, city council, state representative, etc., is an often-untapped way to help bring about social change. And, if we want the science and evidence to inform decision-making, well, it makes to try to utilize this lever.

So back to values. I’m pretty happy I was able to step forward to begin with. I’m also happy that I was able to present what is important to me, and then try to make the case that the values would help other people. What that messaging clearly didn’t work, but I was able to stay honest with myself.

And, taken together, I chalk it up as a win.

5 responses to “I Ran for School Board, Lost, and Still Won”

  1. This is a thoughtful and thought provoking piece. Reading it makes me feel a little disappointed for your community. They missed out.

  2. I completely agree. Thank you for having the courage to not only run, but to listen, to reflect, and to be resilient.

  3. I didn’t know we were physical neighbors as well. This was very interesting and I’m glad you shared this information.

  4. Proud of you, Jonathan, and appreciate so much that you shared your learning transparently and humbly. What terrific role modeling. You sure would have my vote!

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