As the January filing deadline approached, I was talking with a friend about how nobody we knew was running for local office, and all of them were up for grabs, including the big ones: judge executive, county clerk, sheriff, and county attorney.
Over the last few months, I had been talking to Democrats and Republicans alike, people I knew who would be excellent, thoughtful public servants, and not a single person was interested in running. Zero. And these were their key arguments: They did not have time, especially as they readjusted to work and school, post-Covid; most everyone balked at dealing with our local, weekly newspaper, which had a reputation for “gotcha” journalism; folks were beyond burned out on divisive, national topics like abortion, guns, immigration, and Donald Trump; and then there was the overall sentiment that we just do not have the ability to talk calmly and sensibly to each other about politics anymore.
“You should run,” my friend said. “Put your name on the ballot and see what happens.”
I laughed. I could not put my name on the ballot. A few months earlier, seeing how hard-right our local politics were shifting, I had changed my registration from Democrat to Republican, my intent being to try to help moderate Republicans in the upcoming primary. And as a freelance, political opinion columnist and outspoken Democrat, regardless of my registration, how could I write about a topic I was right in the middle of?
And yet, the more I made my arguments against running, the more I knew they were nonsense. My kids were grown and gone, so I had time. As a writer, I had name recognition and a platform, so I was not afraid of the local newspaper. And regardless of how difficult the conversations had become, I was still willing to talk to people about hard topics and with those who disagreed with me politically.
And there was a kicker. I had been a regular attendee for about a year at our fiscal court meetings, Kentucky’s equivalent of a county commission. I attended not because I’d planned to run for a magistrate’s seat, but because I am interested in the court’s business: budgeting, zoning, grant writing, fund distribution, county improvement. I love the formality paired with small town geniality. And regardless of the fact that I am in the political minority in these meetings, I love seeing and talking to the people there.
Anderson County, located in central Kentucky with a population of about 23,000, leaned heavily Democrat a decade ago, but it is now all-in Republican, going more than 70% for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. Still, I thought I had a shot at winning a magistrate seat in my district. Why? The job itself is nonpartisan. I have many Republican friends. There were already three people running; I would make four. And based on recent voter history, I figured there would be about 1,000 votes in my district, split four ways. Anything was possible, right?
Plus, as someone who understands the Fiscal Court’s business and is comfortable communicating with the public, I immediately saw this as an opportunity to test our political system. Are we really too far entrenched in our polarizations, or are citizens still willing to vote for the most qualified person over party?
Based on this, I made some very specific, non-negotiable decisions about how I would run.
- I would tell the truth. I was not pretending to be a Republican in this Republican primary. I remained an outspoken Democrat who would gladly have difficult discussions with voters who disagree with me on policy. I believed these issues had zero to do with the office I was running for, an office that makes nonpartisan financial and business decisions for the county. My job was to make that case.
- I’ve often heard people run for small, local offices for the small salary and free health insurance. I wanted neither and pledged to donate my entire salary of $1,200 a month, after taxes, to local charities.
- I took no campaign donations. If elected, I did not want to owe anyone a favor.
- I am a newspaper columnist first so, regardless of my own race, I would continue to report on other local races and on the egregious, glaring disparities I’d been seeing in our local, political news coverage. If I had to, I would spend my own money running ads to inform the public.
I held true to these tenets through election day, and I think what surprised me most is how much fun I had. I met with strangers, and talked with people who disagreed with me politically, every single day for four months straight. I am 56 years old and have not spent this much time talking on the phone since I was a teenager. With the exception of a small handful, every conversation I had with voters was respectful, interesting, and even funny. There was the person who kept saying, during our 45 minute call, “I’m gonna ask some really hard questions, you’re not gonna want to answer them,” and every time I would answer truthfully they’d say, “Well girl, I gotta give you that one!” There was the guy who kept telling me I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and then howled with laughter when I said, “But I’m telling you who I am, so this means I’m not wearing any clothes, right?”
People constantly said they understood I was running for a nonpartisan job, that they would consider voting for me. And I believed this. I believed this right up until election night when I found myself sitting in the crowded, darkened, county clerk’s office with all of the other candidates and their families, watching a giant, white spreadsheet on a portable, big screen TV, listening to the clerk read the vote totals.
My numbers were not only low, they were shocking. Out of 610 total votes in my district — not the 1,000 I’d counted on — I received only 24. And if we’re having a sense of humor, which I thankfully still have, I voted for myself so that makes it 23.
All that work. All that time. All those wonderful conversations. I had been so sure, absolutely sure, of at least 100 votes if not 200. My head was spinning. How was this possible?
As the clerk’s announcements were coming to an end, a longtime Republican magistrate I would not be serving with for the next four years weaved his way through the dark room and knelt by my chair. He put his arm around my shoulders. “I love you,” he whispered, giving me a good shake. “You’re a good person, and I’m glad you’re here. I want you to know that, OK. I love you.”
This, I thought, is why I ran. I love my town. I love my neighbors. And in the coming days, in addition to my own personal, staggering and embarrassing loss, I would realize that I’d learned some valuable lessons, not the least of which was the most disappointing of all: how few of my fellow citizens bothered to vote at all.
When I was having those early conversations with my friend about the reasons why no one was running for office, I had not remotely considered that people would avoid voting altogether for exactly the same reasons. This was a mistake.
Almost 1,000 Republicans in my district voted in the last primary. Only 60% of them voted this year. Why? I now see it is likely for the same reasons no one would run for office, things I talked to voters about repeatedly during my campaign: exhaustion from arguing with family and friends about politics, the tabloid-style journalism of our local newspaper that most claimed they no longer read, the viciousness that’s become inherent in national topics like abortion, guns, immigration and Trump, and the overwhelming fact that people appear to feel differently about civic engagement post-Covid.
Pre-Covid, Kentuckians mostly had one day to vote, Election Day, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. For years, we argued that, if voting in Kentucky were easier, if there was more opportunity, we would see much larger turnouts.
And yet, in 2022, no longer restricted to voting in our own neighborhood or in that 12-hour period, people did not come out to vote.
Our county clerk did an incredible job both communicating with the public and making voting easier. He set up three, large, easy-to-access, voting locations right in the center of town.
One of those locations was a drive-through, so you could vote in your car.
Voting centers were open the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday before Election Day.
Saturday, the clerk even placed a mobile voting booth at the entrance to Wal-Mart.
None of this mattered.
There is so much talk in the big cities and in the national dialogue about voter suppression and about how the politicians who are focused on overturning election results or keeping voters from the polls. If you watch the national news or get information on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, you know these are constant, running headlines.
But what I saw this primary election season in my small, rural, Kentucky county was none of this. What I saw was apathy. And I don’t know how we fix that.
Teri Carter writes about rural Kentucky politics. You can find her work at the Lexington Herald-Leader, The Washington Post, and The New York Times. She has a BA in English from the University of Minnesota and an MFA in nonfiction writing from San Jose State University. She teaches at The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington and is working on a book about stepfamilies.