Get to know the candidates: How to research the people on your ballot
Yard signs. Online ads. Flyers. When election season comes, it’s hard to escape the deluge of campaign ads.
But political ads might not make it any easier to figure out what each candidate on your ballot stands for. Well-funded candidates can pay for good advertising, but not everyone can afford to flood your social media feed or mailbox.
So, who are your candidates anyway? Let’s do some research.
You can preview your ballot by visiting Michigan.gov/vote and looking up your voter information. You’ll see the same ballot that you’ll get at the polling station or in the mail. Ballot questions like millages are also sometimes on the ballot.
Now that you have a list of names and offices up for election, it’s time to start digging.
In a hurry?
Remember that local, county and state races will affect you and your neighbors more directly. Lesser-known officials like your city councilmember, county prosecutor or state senator can have a more immediate impact on your day-to-day life than the U.S. president. We suggest starting your research from the bottom of your ballot.
And like any research, it’s important to read multiple sources. Everyone has biases and nobody can cover every detail. Read at least two sources on your candidates.
Research doesn’t have to be overwhelming. You might want to do your own online searches, but other people may have already done a lot of legwork for you.
Nonprofits and news outlets ask candidates to fill out questionnaires, which are often included in voter guides. Vote411 is a well-known voter guide prepared by the League of Women Voters, a national nonprofit that has a chapter in Detroit. Vote411 also lets you save a list of your chosen candidates, which you can print and take into the voting booth. (Yes, you can bring notes to the voting booth! It’s not a test!) Detroit Documenters has also made a candidate scorecard based on the Vote 411 guide that you can use. Just go here and click on “use template” in the upper right hand corner to get a version you can use for yourself.
Voter guides are not editorial endorsements, which some news outlets also publish. Confusingly, some brand their endorsements as “voter guides.” If it pushes opinions instead of facts, it might not be a great voter guide for you.
Endorsements are opinions. They may help you decide which candidates to support, but endorsements are an incomplete resource when you’re just starting your research.
Campaign websites and social media
Campaign websites can help you learn about your candidates. Specifically, you’ll want to find a page where candidates list political issues that matter to them and how they will fix those issues. You can usually find this under the “issues” or “platform” page.
Some candidates might not have a website, especially in races that have less competition or funding. These races are still important to research! Search for your candidates on social media, like Facebook and Twitter, and read how they discuss certain issues. If a candidate does not have a website, does not have a strong social media presence and does not answer questions for voter guides, that might be an issue for you.
If you want to look past what candidates say about themselves, check out Ballotpedia. It’s exactly what it sounds like: An encyclopedia that covers many politicians and election races. Not all their articles are fleshed out, but all of them include sources. Many of them link to campaign websites and social media pages.
Online searches are the most powerful tool when researching candidates. If you search for a candidate’s name, add keywords like “news”, “Michigan”, or the issues you care most about, or the public office they’re running for. Experiment with keywords until you feel like you’ve read enough.
What to consider
As you research, you might encounter a dizzying array of candidates, all trying to hit major talking points and wide-reaching political priorities. Maybe all the candidates in a particular race sound great to you. To narrow them down, we suggest forming a concrete picture of what you would like to see in your chosen candidate.
The candidate’s party might be a make-or-break situation for you. But their political background is just as important.
If they’re a new candidate, what is their campaign platform? What issues are they outspoken about? You can usually figure this out through news coverage, campaign websites and social media pages.
You may also want to consider a candidate’s personal background: Their past work experience, the community where they live and their community involvement might tell you how they would govern. Or you might want someone who knows your community well because they live and work there.
What is their character or personality? And how much should that matter?
Certain qualities can make a leader more effective. If an official is attempting to pass legislation but cannot gain the support of their colleagues, it may prevent them from doing meaningful work. If you want to rank candidates on the qualities you want to see in an elected official use the Detroit Documenters candidate scorecard. Just go here and click on “use template” in the upper right hand corner to get started.