Caucus Time: A guide to running for town office

It’s caucus time, the official start of Harvard’s 2019 election season. Though passage of the town’s charter sharply lowered the number of elected offices last year, the position of moderator and nine seats on four town boards remain in the hands of voters, who will cast their ballots May 7 at 2019 Town Election.

In addition to the moderator, who is elected annually, voters will fill two seats apiece on the Select Board, the School Committee, and the Library Trustees, and three on the Trustees of the Warner Free Lectures. Perhaps you’ve decided to step up and run for office. Now what?

Town Caucus, set to convene Monday, March 18, at 7 p.m. in upper Town Hall, is your first and best opportunity to launch a campaign. That night the window for getting your name on the May 7 ballot opens briefly, only to close two days later on Thursday, March 21 at 5 p.m.

Any registered Harvard voter can run for an open seat. If you’re up for the challenge, you have three ways to get your name on the ballot: First, you can be nominated at this year’s Town Caucus; second, you can collect signatures and file nomination papers; or third, should you miss the deadline for nomination, you can offer yourself as a write-in candidate.

Of the three, Town Caucus is your best option. Its sole purpose is to nominate candidates. You don’t even have to be present. Simply arrange for two of your supporters to attend the meeting Monday, one to place your name in nomination and the other to second it. Although there is no limit to the number of candidates who can run for an open position, Town Caucus can nominate only two. If more than two names are proposed, a vote is taken and the two with the most votes are chosen. As a candidate, you should encourage supporters to attend in case there is a runoff. What’s the caucus advantage? Candidates selected by Town Caucus appear first on the ballot and have the words “Caucus Nominee” printed with their names. Caucus-nominated candidates must sign nomination papers, either before leaving the meeting or at the town clerk’s office by 5 p.m., Thursday, March 21.

Nomination by other means

If you skip the caucus or fail to win a slot, you can still collect signatures and file nomination papers with the town clerk. Town Clerk Marlene Kenney has the necessary forms at her desk in Town Hall. The number of signatures needed to qualify varies from year to year because of a state law that uses town turnout at the most recent gubernatorial election as its basis. This year the required number is 25. The deadline for submitting the forms is 5 p.m., Thursday, March 21. “There can be no exceptions,” Kenney reminds the Press each year.

Write-in candidates have no such deadline, but with no name on the ballot, their task is to line up voters ahead of time to write in a name. It’s rare for a write-in candidate to win an election when there are other names on the ballot, Kenney said. A write-in candidate is most likely to succeed when no other candidates have come forward. “If you’re planning a write-in campaign,” Kenney says, “please let [the clerk’s office] know ahead of time. It helps us plan our vote counting on election day.”

Getting your name on the ballot, however, should not be your first consideration, say the authors of “How to Run for Local Office,” a guide first published by the League of Women Voters of Harvard in 1992, updated in 2014, and available at no charge at the League’s website (www.lwvharvard.org). Before taking that life-altering step, they write, it’s time for some self-assessment.

Assessing your readiness for office

First, you should ask yourself whether you understand the mission and responsibilities of the board you seek to join. What kind of expertise do you need to become an effective member, and what major tasks will the board undertake during your term of office? Membership on an elected board requires time and attention. Will you be able to attend regular meetings? Are you able to take on committee work outside of those regular times? Do you have the time and the drive to delve into topics that might come before your board but with which you are unfamiliar?

In addition to contributing your time and attention, as an elected official, you will also be expected to be accessible. “Most voluntary town positions do not have secretarial assistance or other usual office support,” the guide observes, though in recent years that has begun to change.

While experience and skills can be important, the guide adds, it’s not necessary to be an expert to be a good contributor. What counts, the guide states, is the ability to work in teams and to collaborate with peers with whom you will not always agree, as well as a willingness to learn and master the details of the job.

Editor’s note: A version of this guide appeared in the March 23, 2018, issue of the Press. It has been updated for 2019.

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