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Running a Successful Local Government Election Campaign

After serving 2 Terms (6 years) in Local Government NZ I have learned a few tricks and traps that might help aspiring candidates.

How Not to Campaign For Local Government

  • Promising the world.
  • Talking down to the audience
  • Talking from a position of ignorance

You might think that it is a good idea to promise to give everyone what they wish for. However, while you may win a few voters, most people understand that you will not be able to deliver on your promises—at least not without driving rates through the roof!

It is far better to focus on one big ticket item that you may wish to deliver rather than to deliver all things for all people.

Do not make the mistake of talking down to your audience, or explaining in great detail some acronym you have just learned, or explaining how a Long Term Plan (LTP) works, for example. Most people who show up to public meetings or display an interest in local government already have a basic understanding (if they are not intimate with the inner workings of council).

Often I see someone new to local government representation coming in thinking everyone is as ignorant as they had been.

This is not to say that all people know all about council, there are many people out there that are willfully ignorant. It is highly likely that they wish to remain ignorant and just want you to sort out their issue.

Another mistake that I see often repeated is people campaigning from a position of ignorance. If you are campaigning on getting roads fixed, as an example, in New Zealand you have to first understand that state highways are government controlled and nothing to do with local government.

Make sure the roads you are talking about are local government roads or you will look foolish to those that do understand who maintains which roads. The same applies to a lot of legislation that is handed down from central government even if it is administered by local councils they are bound by the rules set by government.

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

— Gerald R. Ford

Two Sides To Every Coin

It is important to understand, both when you are campaigning and once you enter local government, that there are two sides to every story.

It is important to know this when you are campaigning because every "hot topic" that you might be tempted to voice an opinion on is going to have a group of people in support, but it is also going to have a group of people against. That is how "hot topics" are formed. So remember that while you are winning some votes, you are also alienating other voters.

A candidate who does not stand for anything is unlikely to be appealing, but a candidate who voices a strong opinion on many issues is likely to upset everyone on at least one issue, which may leave them short on votes.

After six years on local government, I am pretty sure I have voted the "wrong way" on at least one agenda item, according to everyone.

How can this be, you ask?

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When someone comes to you with a problem, like excessive red tape around why they can't build their shed, what you will discover if you try and sort out this bureaucratic roadblock is that there is another person on the other side of the fence whose million dollar view will be severely restricted if that shed is built.

And this scenario applies to all kinds of situations, like noise created from a public celebration, a boat ramp that is destroying the crabs, cars that leave no room for cyclists, or cyclists that terrify pedestrians, and so it goes.

It is always a good idea to try and get both sides to the story before you jump in to promise a solution or try and solve the issue. Often there is a long history to a story that surfaces around election time, as one or other party thinks that they will win over fresh new council candidates to get their way. Promises made in the heat of the campaign can be an embarrassment down the road.

Bureaucratic Overreach

“Government exists to protect us from each other. Where government has gone beyond its limits is in deciding to protect us from ourselves.”

— Ronald Reagan

Getting Your Name Out There

We have a situation where 50% of eligible voters turning out to vote is a good result. That means that half of the people are either so disillusioned with local government that they don't bother to vote, or they simply aren't interested or feel that they don't know enough to vote.

Many of those who do vote simply scroll down the list looking for a name that they recognize (even if they don't know why they recognize the name—maybe the police most wanted list?), and some may read the short candidate blurbs attached to the voting paper.

Name recognition is an important component to winning an election. Some people are lucky to have family names associated with politics or that are prominent in the community. Others have to start from relative obscurity.

If you are active on social media or have friends who are active on social media, then that is a big plus in the modern world. However, do not assume that a big social media profile will translate into votes, unless you are able to motivate your audience to vote.

Traditionally, the most active portion of the population when it comes to voting are in the older age bracket, many of whom have limited social media exposure.

An excellent way to win votes and hear what is important to your community is to get out and knock on doors. All candidates should get over any inhibitions that they have and knock on a cross section of the doors in the communities that they wish to represent—not just all the houses in a nice neighborhood.

The drawback with meeting people one-on-one is that it is very time consuming, and even if you start months early, it is unlikely that you will cover the entire electorate.

Another excellent technique is to get a sign asking people to vote for you and stand on busy roads. Get out there early in the morning to meet commuter traffic (most candidates will opt for an easy afternoon stint if they do this) and even better if you are still there to meet them as they travel home.

This shows commitment and lets people see you in person. If it is raining while you do it, then you win even more votes!

Printed shirts and hats are a relatively cheap form creating an eye-catching presence if you have a team of supporters helping you out.

Mixing with sporting groups, school groups (if you have children), walking groups, craft groups, gardening groups, fitness groups, volunteer groups, any other group of people that you can get along to are a good place to make introductions and get people to talk with their friends about you.

Rest homes are another excellent opportunity to be invited along to talk to a group of people likely to vote.

Local markets are a good place to go and set up a site where people can come along and talk to you.

If you have money burning a hole in your pocket, then you can put up billboards and distribute flyers. Newspapers are always looking to relieve people of their money around this time. Small community papers are often a more economic way to get an advert out to your audience particularly in rural areas.

Radio is another great outreach for those that can afford it. TV is probably a little out of reach of most people applying for a minimum wage council position—but if you have good reasons and a bank account, why not?

All good ways to generate name recognition. You have to pick the options that best fit your personality and, of course, budget.

Warning: Know the Rules!

Before doing any promotions, be sure that you have read the rules!

You must keep a record of all the money that you spend (and receive).

Signs will have specific requirements about location, lettering, content and duration.

Social media has requirements about what you can post and when.

It pays to read the rules before you find yourself in trouble with fines and possible disqualification.

Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

— Winston S. Churchill

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2022 Idus Martiae

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