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Tip Sheet: How to be an Elections Watchdog in 2013!

Think that “election season” is over until 2016? Think again. There will be elections in every corner of the country throughout 2013, and they have consequences just like presidential elections do. Check out these 8 tips to learn how to be a Citizen Watchdog for local and state elections!

Tip #1: Find out when the next elections are

It’s easy to remember “Election Day,” the Tuesday after the first Monday in November in even years. This is the day we vote for President, Congress, Governor, and other high-profile offices: races that the legacy media covers somewhat thoroughly. But election days can happen throughout the year (and in odd years too!), and are different for each state, county, and municipality.

There are two places you should look for an elections calendar: your state Secretary of State’s website, which will have a schedule of elections for state offices, and your city or county’s Board of Elections website, which will announce local elections. (If your local Board of Elections doesn’t have an online presence, you may need to trek down to City Hall or the county courthouse.)

Tip #2: Read up on the powers of local offices

State Senate, State House of Representatives, County Supervisor, Judge, Mayor, City Council, Planning Board, School Board, Dog Catcher–there are dozens of offices that could be on your ballot this year, and it’s hard to keep them all straight! Once you’ve figured out when Election Day is and what’s on the ballot, look through your state constitution and city or county charter to learn more about the powers granted to these elected officials. You may be surprised by what you learn: in some areas a County Judge presides over legal matters in a courtroom, but in other places this term could refer to an executive with powers similar to a mayor!

You wouldn’t hire an employee without knowing the position description for the open job. So how could you cast a ballot for a candidate without knowing what powers they’d have in office?

Tip #3: Know the candidates

Again, your state’s Secretary of State and your local Board of Elections should be your first stop here: if their websites are up to par, they’ll have lists of candidates running for office. But if you can’t find the information you need there, Ballotpedia, which tracks thousands of local races each year, should be able to help you out. If all else fails, pick up the phone and call your local elections authority–as a citizen, you have the right to know who is running to represent you!

Once you know who is running, check out each candidate’s website, and follow them on Twitter. Some local newspapers may also run candidate profiles before an election; be sure to read through these and compare them to what the candidate says about him or herself.

Tip #4: Attend a candidate forum or debate

Especially at the local level, open forums and “town hall” style debates are the best ways to learn about where candidates stand in advance of an election. These events are usually held on weekday evenings in community buildings: school gymnasiums, churches, senior centers, and the like. Many people are too busy to attend these forums, which make them a great opportunity for you to ask questions and get direct answers. (You made a list of questions after you checked out the candidates’ website, right?)

Candidates may also debate each other on local radio shows or TV programs. These will usually be promoted on social media, so make sure to closely monitor Facebook and Twitter!

Tip #5: Shoot video at campaign events

This is an important one: when the media ignores local-level races, it’s up to citizen journalists to get out in the field and report on what candidates are saying–so we can cast an informed ballot, and so that we can hold politicians accountable once they’re elected to office. It’s hard to accuse an officeholder of going back on his promises if no one was covering the campaign speech where he made the promises!

Shooting video has never been easier: you can do it on your cell phone, a Flip cam, a tablet, or a traditional video camera. Upload it to YouTube, post it to Watchdog Wire, share it on social media–make sure that the voters in your community know who they’re casting their ballots for!

Tip #6: Check on campaign finances

Earlier this week, we wrote about how easy it is to look up federal campaign finance reports and find out who’s giving money to who. And while it’s trickier to find finance reports for local and state races–watchdog resources like OpenSecrets only cover federal elections–FollowTheMoney.org is a great database of state-level financial data. You can type in your address, and Follow The Money will bring you directly to campaign finance reports for candidates in your area!

For lower-level local offices, like school board and city council, you’ll have to find campaign finance data on your own. Some localities post this information on line, but you may have to call or visit City Hall to get your hands on the records–which by law are open to the public.

Even in the most low-profile of races, it’s important to know where candidates’ money comes from. Are special interest groups like teachers unions spending heavily to pack the school board with rubber-stamp candidates? Voters need to know about this before the election, not after!

Tip #7: Don’t forget ballot initiatives

Ballot¬†initiatives, the lone way by which citizens can directly change laws with politicians playing middle man, can get lost in the shuffle during presidential elections, but in “off years” like 2013, they take center stage in many communities. We wrote last week about the power ballot initiatives give citizens to raise or lower taxes, to authorize or cut spending, or to place new restraints on government.

Unfortunately, ballot initiatives tend to have very complicated warning, and too many voters mark “Yes” or “No” without fully understanding what’s at stake. Check with your local Board of Elections for the text of the initiative a few weeks before the election, and read it through from beginning to end. Then, spread the word so that other citizens know what their vote means.

Tip #8: Get up on your soapbox and spread the word!

Elections, especially local ones, aren’t a spectator sport: the Founding Fathers envisioned a well-informed citizenry that kept a close eye on politicians throughout the electoral process. The first 7 tips are intended to help you become as informed as possible before the next election, but that doesn’t mean much if your neighbors are blissfully ignorant. You can’t just absorb information–it’s your duty to pass it along!

Watchdog Wire is intended as a resource for you to share these kinds of stories, but you’ll also want to use social media and old fashioned word-of-mouth. If you find a race on the ballot to be particularly important, you may want to write an op-ed in your local paper or call into a radio show to call attention to it.

So there you have it–we look forward to seeing your stories and videos here on Watchdog Wire!

Kevin Palmer

Staff writer at Franklin Center. Contact me at kevin@watchdogwire.com

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Categories: Elections, Quick Tips, Uncategorized

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