How To Run For Local Office, Part I: The Backstory


Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution.

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24 Responses

  1. aaron david says:


  2. Saul Degraw says:

    Mazel Tov!Report

  3. James K says:

    Congratulations Patrick.Report

  4. Will H. says:

    Dude, I hate that when some politician calls a press conference, and just when it gets interesting, says, “More forthcoming,” and shuts down the press conference.

    Time for a big, black car:
    (the good version)Report

  5. Richard Hershberger says:

    Regarding election at-large versus by district, my county recently made this switch. I live in a semi-rural, semi-exurban county. For many years we had a county commission consisting of three commissioners elected at large. Five years ago we switched to five commissioners elected by district.

    How did that work out? The districts themselves are reasonable enough, with no obvious gerrymandering. So that hasn’t been a problem. But what did happen is it became easier for nut cases to get elected. The election is held in the off-year cycle from the presidential election, with the result that turnout is smallish. Voting by district means that you don’t need to fire up all that many like-thinking voters to actually schlep to the polls. So long as the rest of the voters, who don’t want a nut case representing them, aren’t really paying attention, it is entirely doable to get elected by a small but committed base.

    This is a solidly Republican county. This is not to my taste, but I can live with the typical classic Main Street Republican, who understands that the roads need to be paved and plowed, and who doesn’t think that public education is a Commie plot. The perennial issue with that crowd was whether to encourage more rapid growth, or slightly less rapid growth, and how much to worry about the infrastructure to support this growth. Ah, those halcyon days! What we got under the new regime was two complete whack jobs. One of them–and I swear I’m not making this up–cruises around the region on his Harley giving speeches about how “sustainability” is a UN plot to take away our liberties. The other three were not overt nut cases, but they weren’t of the stuff to stand up to the nut cases, and only one had to be persuaded on any vote. (I fondly remember an op ed by one of them with a semi-coherent thinly disguised racist argument against public transportation, combined with self-congratulation on his courage to say what needed to be said. This, sadly, was one of the comparatively sane three.)

    Four years of antics brought out the vote, and one of the crazies was voted out. Harley guy is still in office, and wildly popular with a certain segment of the electorate. Fortunately, I don’t live in his district, so I don’t have to look at my neighbors and wonder if they voted for this lunatic.

    So my conclusion is that the two schemes have different trade-offs. Yes, districting can make for a more diverse representation of a diverse electorate. With at-large voting, it is harder for a barking mad candidate to slip past an unengaged electorate, simply because the number of votes needed to get elected is higher. Which system works best for any given situation would depend on the local circumstances. Here, we were better off with at-large elections.Report

    • Patrick in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      If you don’t mind, I’m going to steal this whole comment for the next post….

      So my conclusion is that the two schemes have different trade-offs. Yes, districting can make for a more diverse representation of a diverse electorate. With at-large voting, it is harder for a barking mad candidate to slip past an unengaged electorate, simply because the number of votes needed to get elected is higher. Which system works best for any given situation would depend on the local circumstances. Here, we were better off with at-large elections.

      Because that is true.

      There’s another advantage to sub-districts… while you’re correct that it’s easier for a nut to get elected, it’s also easier for somebody who isn’t part of a “political machine” to get elected. You can run for office in a sub-district and win with a whole lot less $$ than a city- or regional-wide election, because you can walk the district and your direct mail costs are a lot lower.Report

      • Chris in reply to Patrick says:

        I have a hard time seeing any justification for an at-large only (or really, even partially) elected group in an area of any size and diversity. It’s not merely a matter of racial representation, but you end up with some areas inevitably getting screwed because even the minority members will tend to come from the more affluent parts of the area. District or sub-district-based representation with residency requirements may not be perfect, but it at least makes it more likely that people will be represented by folks who live where they live and therefore are more likely to have similar concerns.

        Austin’s system was/is an object lesson in this. (See, e.g., districting).Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Patrick says:

        I will, of course, expect my royalty check to be mailed promptly…Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Patrick says:

        Chris, is that something that you think can be addressed via group elections (equivalent of proportional representation) instead of seat races?

        Most at large problems I’ve seen have been a result more of straight-line voting (slates instead of parties at the local level).Report

      • Chris in reply to Patrick says:

        I’m not sure how group elections would work.Report

      • Will Truman in reply to Patrick says:

        Basically like proportional representation within a multimember district. You vote for slates, and seats are tied to percentages.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Patrick says:

        @ Chris:

        These are all valid points, and are part of the trade-off. My county has a population, as of the 2010 census, of 167K and change, and you can drive from one end to the other in a bit over a half hour. I don’t know if that counts as “of any size” for purposes of this discussion, but it’s what I’ve got.

        The county is, again as of 2010, 92.7% white. Did I mention that it is a Republican stronghold? Of those five county commission district elections last year, the highest any Democrat pulled was just under 26%. Interestingly, Harley Guy ran unopposed in the general election, and actually got the lowest percentage of any of the five races, with just under 27% write-ins, presumably the write-in being “anyone but Harley Guy.” It’s not that people are unaware that he is barking mad, but everyone correctly knows that the primary election is the real race. (He got just under 57% there.)

        The point about at-large elections pulling candidates from the more affluent parts of the county is well taken. The five we have are mostly pretty middle class: two are former high school teachers, and one a former fire fighter who now owns a lawn care company. Harley Guy claims to have “worked in sales, and management of a Fortune 100 high-tech firm.” That is discreetly vague, so take it for what it is worth. (What the heck: check out his website: It will make you proud to be an American.) I don’t know the backgrounds of the commissioners under the old system, so I can’t really compare. But on paper, the current crew has the sort of background people tend to claim to like in local government.

        So as I say, your concerns are legitimate parts of the trade-off. But I still think that for the particular situation I live in, at-large in balance is better.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Patrick says:

        @richard-hershberger No worries, we pay at the usual rate.Report

      • Chris in reply to Patrick says:

        @will-truman Oh, I can imagine that works pretty well, though slates give me worry about political machines, at least where there aren’t party-based elections (and even where there are, I suppose). Anything that makes the elections more local, though, sounds good to me.

        Of course, Austin doesn’t really have to worry about political machines. The coalitions here are pretty diverse: West and Central Austin rich folks, weird South Austin rich folks, East and Southeast Austin middle and working class folks (the poor are gonna get screwed no matter what), none of whom get along over more than a couple issues.

        Rail and zoning are good examples. On rail, Central Austin rich folks wanted it, West and South Austin rich folks didn’t want it, East and Southeast middle and working class folks kind of wanted it, but were worried it would result in reduction in bus service, and the poor were going to get screwed no matter what. In zoning, Central and West Austin rich folks are pretty strongly aligned, South Austin and East Austin folks are (very loosely) aligned, and the poor get screwed. In short: nobody agrees with anybody else all of the time, except on screwing the poor.

        @richard-hershberger that’s large enough, population-wise, that at large might have downsides, but it sounds like a fairly homogeneous population. As long as there aren’t major geographic differences in policy issues (like, say, electricity or water access, or where people want to dump all the unpleasant stuff, or where a major airport is, or where a lot of people from out of area come to do business), I imagine at-large would work fine there.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

      “So my conclusion is that the two schemes have different trade-offs. Yes, districting can make for a more diverse representation of a diverse electorate.”


      But districting accomplished exactly what it set out to do: diverse representation. The “problem” is that your area had ideological diversity. I would say that nutty voters electing nutty representatives is a feature, not a bug. The response shouldn’t be to water down those people’s influence but, instead, to run better candidates, better campaigns, and aim to convert them to some form of non-nuttiness.Report

  6. Mad Rocket Scientist says:

    Oh, good, an intermission, time for popcorn!Report

  7. Zane says:

    The pedantic aspect of my personality obligates me to point out that seven states have none of that pesky gerrymandering polluting the selection of their Congressional Representatives. They are Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Delaware, and Alaska.

    At least, no gerrymandering at present. I can’t speak to what was going on when those seven states were created. The whole North and South Dakota thing looks suspicious to me…Report

    • zic in reply to Zane says:

      Maine, too.

      The Republicans tried last redistricting (tried to put Chellie Pingree’s home, on the coast in Dist. 1 into Dist. 2) and it was overwhelming rejected by citizens; at which point they settled down into a sane redrawing of our congressional district lines.Report

      • Zane in reply to zic says:

        I was actually mentioning those states because they only have one Representative each, so gerrymandering isn’t technically possible.

        But I do applaud those states that have made efforts to reduce the temptation of gerrymandering. Iowa is the one I’m most familiar with. I’m not sure if Iowa’s plan would be affected by the recent lawsuit challenging states that have removed redistricting from their legislature’s responsibility. Iowa’s legislature does have to approve or reject the the redistricting plan, they just don’t get to draw the lines. If they reject the plan, a new one is created by the computer for them to approve or reject.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Zane says:

      @zane Might I recommend “How The States Got Their Shapes”? It’s a fascinating book. The state that makes no sense (Idaho) has the shape it does due to an ornery judge/politician who wanted state lines drawn around him.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


        There is a show with that title or something very similar. It’s pretty well done and the host (whose name escapes me but he plays the lawyer on “It’s Always Sunny…”) does a really good job of being engaging without being TOO hokey… because you have to be a LITTLE BIT hokey when talking about state shapes.Report

      • Zane in reply to Will Truman says:

        @will-truman I’ve seen the book, but it’s been a while. I should go check it out again. Thanks for the recommendation. Idaho is especially problematic. There’s one highway from the bulk of the state in the south to the panhandle, and the panhandle is very much in the economic sphere of Spokane rather than the rest of the state.

        @kazzy I believe you’re speaking of Brian Unger. It’s a fun show, but a little silly.

        …How the States Got Their Shapes, that is.

        It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia is a great show, and hugely silly.Report

      • @zane Have you ever driven that connecting route? Worst. Drive. Ever. It’s just terrible. Just go through Washington and Oregon. Which is pretty indicative of a poorly drafted state.

        In their defense, it’s actually hard to draw the state right. The original lines, which incorporated western Montana, would be okay, but it would leave Montana bereft of people (more so than it already is).

        About the best I can think of is to give the top to Washington and then seize a significant chunk (half, or more) of Oregon. Idaho would lose some population, and Idaho would be a huge state, but at least it would be one state (with the eastern part culturally isolated, but at least not geographically).Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Will Truman says:


        Yes, that is exactly who I’m thinking of! Thanks! It is indeed silly but I kind of think it has to be given the general dryness of the subject matter.Report