We can elect better leaders when we make elections more accessible | Opinion

Running for office is hard. But so is living under leadership that doesn’t adequately represent you or your neighbors

‘Local Elections Matter’ sign on Fairmount Ave. in Philadelphia (Capital-Star photo by Ella Lathan).

By Oliver Truong

I want to applaud everyone who took a leap of faith in their community and put their name on the ballot this month, asked for votes and went through a grueling process.

Running for office is hard, but so is living under leadership that doesn’t adequately represent you or your neighbors. People are dissatisfied with the quality of politicians that represent them at almost every level, but the barriers to entry for the political process are so high, we are often unable to get new people involved at all.

This is a problem and we see it in every level of government, with politicians that are elected and reelected time after time but don’t vote in their constituents’ best interests. We see entire regions where progressives don’t try to get involved because the problems seem too big and the process too unapproachable to even start. We thrive when we are represented, but the path to get there is long, confusing and difficult. 

From announcing a run, to getting through the petition period to get on the ballot; from raising money to knocking doors, every step of a political campaign is time consuming and requires resources. In fact, When 2022 candidates were asked their biggest hesitation in deciding to run for office, the top answers were the time commitment and fundraising. 

We can elect better leaders when we make elections more accessible.

My organization, LEAD PA, was formed in 2016 to confront the difficulties of running for office, particularly in areas that don’t historically support progressive candidates.

We start at the very beginning of the electoral process, working with communities and organizations to identify and recruit candidates and data shows that this is a critical step. Of 2022 progressive candidates surveyed in a national poll, 43 percent of them said they needed encouragement to jump into a campaign and said they weren’t even thinking of running until others encouraged them to do so. 

But encouragement isn’t quite enough and once those candidates are in, there is even more that we have to do to break down the barriers of running for office so that any community leader with progressive values could gain the skills they needed to be elected.

We work with them and offer trainings so they know how many signatures they need to get on the ballot, who they can get those signatures from and when they need to be filed. We teach them about campaign finance, making sure they file every report they’re required to at every interval. We teach them about communications and messaging, so that they can talk about the issues they care about in a way that makes sense to voters. 

Among those who got on the ballot, almost half of them had budgets of less than $10,000 and more than half of them said they had very little to not enough resources to advance their campaigns. There is so much attention paid to the statewide, big money races – but that simply isn’t the way most campaigns go. Most races, especially those at the local level, struggle to raise enough money or harness the skills they need to get attention on the issues that made them run for office in the first place.

One third of candidates said they needed more strategic advice and support through their campaigns. This is something that’s missing from our political landscape, particularly at an affordable rate. We know that great candidates and community leaders are kept on the sidelines or losing elections because they just needed some extra help on the process. 

Being a good campaigner is not always the same as being a good leader, but the campaign process is a necessity in our form of government. We’re committed to making good leaders into good campaigners, because it holds the promise of good representation for all of our communities.

At LEAD, we don’t endorse candidates and we don’t make political contributions. We often say that we’re getting folks ready to go to school. We put them on the bus, and then they’re on their own. We want qualified, progressive leaders to be equipped for the process, but we won’t interfere beyond that point.

You should have better choices on your ballot, and no one should be kept off because they just didn’t understand the process or couldn’t access the tools. 

Oliver Truong co-executive director of LEAD PA, which exists to seek out, encourage and cultivate a new generation of progressive community and civic leaders across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. 

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.