How to Win My Vote

Dr. Sarah Marie Story
10 min readApr 19, 2023

A warm breeze sashays through the basement of Sacred Heart Church, rustling stacks of paper ballots and kissing the sweaty foreheads of volunteers and voters. “Voters” is plural because, on April 4, 2023, there are precisely TWO of us in this room in the middle of the day. I like to think that huge crowds swelled against the doors early this morning, the people so amped to vote in this primary municipal election that they couldn’t even sleep last night. I soothe myself with this thought. The alternative — that nobody cared and most people stayed home — is scary.

Many of our city council spots are up for grabs. In my city, every district gets two reps. One is elected by the people in their district. The other is elected by everyone. It keeps at least half of the representation with one foot outside their district instead of 12 people fighting for their individual territory.

A bunch of folks are getting termed out this year, so this ballot required a bunch of research. The volume of candidates means that my mailbox is particularly full of mailers, each glossier than the next. Because I am fully a local government nerd, I don’t just toss these mailers. Instead, I stack them up on my desk all election season and periodically thumb through them, trying to commit to memory all the names vying for my vote. I am also a brand strategist, so these mailers double-please me. I take as much issue with font choices as with policy platforms.

I can’t remember when I was deluged with as many mailers, text messages, emails, or door hangers. I was a kid in a candy store, albeit a candy store that doesn’t appeal to most of the population. Like a candy store that only has Hot Tamales and Smarties. Some races had a half-dozen candidates that all seemed high quality, so I contacted friends and trusted nerds to try and differentiate. I would get five different, well-reasoned answers for every five people I asked.

We’re a pretty “blue” city on the whole, so policy platform comparisons become a little ridiculous after you stare at them too long. Police transparency? Everyone says, “good.” Focus on housing affordability? Everyone says, “of course.” The nuances of how things are funded, regulations will be drawn, and codes enforced aren’t primary election material. How will we bring down our violent crime rate? Nine out of 10 folks say something about community engagement. I don’t blame them. If I was running, I’d do the same thing. I would focus on my bonafides, make a positive brand impression, and save specifics for when my opponent pool is smaller.

After hours (that’s an exaggeration, more like dozens of minutes) of research, I was armed with my little sticky note cheat sheet in the basement of Sacred Heart. I always beam with pride when the voting volunteers say, “That was fast! Look who is prepared!” I still can’t get enough validation for my commitment to the democratic process. I am a bottomless pit when it comes to my appetite for voting-related compliments. No one fills a bubble like me. NO ONE!

As I watched the results come in, I got the idea for this essay. Suppose I could talk to all of these candidates before the primaries. What would I tell them about my decision-making process? It’s not scientific. Sometimes it’s not even rational. Sometimes it’s even in conflict with core values I’ve held for my whole life. But none of that matters when every vote counts.

So, here are five ways to win my vote this election season. (These are meant to be fun, so please don’t take it all so seriously.)

1. Take better photos

I know you think your nephew, who got a camera for his graduation present, is an excellent choice to take your pictures because he will do them cheaply. But a cheap photographer produces cheap photos, and we notice. Do not be afraid to retouch your face. It’s not catfishing. It’s adjusting for the harshness of the light or the quality of the camera. Your shiny face makes us think you’re sweating, and sweating makes us think you are LYING about something. While we’re at it, here are some other things to not do in your photos:

  • Do that pic with your family where you’re all sitting on your charming porch. First, I don’t want to be at eye level with all of your knees. Second, now I’m jealous that your porch is so big.
  • Take a picture in front of the city’s skyline, because now you look like some sort of emperor or monarch.
  • Take pics with people of color when it’s clear from your personal social media that you don’t hang out with any actual black or brown people.
  • Put your baby front and center. Having a baby — especially if you do not have a uterus — is not a policy platform.

Things I would love to see you do in your photos:

  • Put your dog front and center, but only if the dog looks trustworthy or impressive. Bonus points if it looks like a shelter dog.
  • Action shots, like you at your desk thinking hard or handing someone a sandbag during a hurricane.
  • Shirtsleeves rolled up, maybe a blazer thrown over the shoulder like you’re ready to get to work.
  • Laughing, looking off-camera, is such a hit in my house. I also enjoy a serious face, looking off-camera as if you’re staring into the horizon of the future.

Exhibit A: Dog-centered photo, 8 out of 10 woofs.

2. It’s OK to have aspirations!

I can’t believe how many candidates will tell me, “I’m not using this as a career stepping stone. I only want to be your city councilman.” First of all, stop lying. Second of all, why do you think that would appeal to me? Why would I vote for someone who wants to serve a couple terms and then be done? I’m here to hitch my cart to a WINNER. I want to see you be President of the United States! I’d love to be able to say, “that guy was on my front porch 20 years ago!”

Conversely, I received a couple of flyers from candidates committing to be a “full-time councilperson.” The problem is, it’s a part-time salary. So I’m immediately dubious. I’m wondering how this candidate can afford a full-time commitment on a part-time income. Trust fund? Rich wife/husband? Sold a start-up and took early retirement? I can tell by their front porch photo and their purebred dog they aren’t struggling financially, so make it make sense to me.

3. I am really interested in your life story

Here are some of the most interesting tidbits about people that made me look twice at their campaign materials: they were a cashier at a gas station; they had the term “special victims unit” in their job title; they were a nationally-ranked pickleball player; they owned a pizza store; they had goats in their yard that took care of their lawn.

This isn’t to say I don’t care about your values or your policy priorities. It means I’m looking for people who have interesting lives and might bring that life experience into office. Your pickleball success means you’re likely competitive, persistent, and a good communicator. Your years as a gas station cashier mean you know what it’s like to work for an hourly wage at odd shifts. This is much more impressive to me than your Ivy League degree. I like knowing that my representatives are approachable. These are, after all, city council folks. These are our literal neighbors. If I have an issue, I like the idea of running into my rep on the pickleball court.

While we’re on the topic of life stories, I’m really not impressed that you lived here your whole life. Being born somewhere by chance is not an accomplishment. To be from somewhere else and choose this city, or come back to your roots, is more powerful than claiming you’re the right choice because you never left the city limits.

4. Bashing bureaucrats isn’t a good look

I went to several small house party fundraisers over the last few weeks. You know the type — a fireside chat, charcuterie, and giant bottles of Barefoot wine with the “nice” plastic cups. I enjoy these immensely because the candidates are often more honest after a glass of Barefoot Merlot and the crowd typically is no more than a dozen people. I love seeing candidates have to speak off the cuff. Canned responses don’t play well in these types of rooms.

One of the themes I picked up across multiple candidates: throwing city employees under the proverbial bus. Usually, it was comments like, “it takes years to get things done,” or offhand comments to “bloat” and “bureaucracy.” Candidates who use city employees as scapegoats often do not understand how the city operates. I heard one candidate bemoan the speed with which rental housing inspections are completed, only to blame the wrong department. I heard another candidate lobby for a “groundbreaking” idea they had to create a tax levy to support public health, not knowing that we’ve had this exact tax for decades.

I’ve seen the good and the bad in government staff. I know that the system sometimes makes innovation challenging and that progress can feel incremental. But our council people only get eight years to make a difference, while the employees are left behind to deal with the benefits or consequences of elected official pet projects. I know that sometimes problematic people are kept on for years only because it’s too difficult to fire them. These are legitimate concerns. I’m willing to talk about them with anyone who’s done their homework, understands how the city functions, and attempts to empathize with the people who make the city run.

5. I just want my trash picked up

I am so grateful that you want to end hunger, stop all evictions, reduce crime by 50%, ban plastic bags, cancel student debt, and build more bike lanes than Amsterdam. I genuinely admire your ambitious goals and vision for the future. I can’t wait to see you accomplish that in four (or eight) years!

But while we’re dreaming big, could I also just get my trash picked up on time? A pothole down the street from my house is so deep I can see honest-to-God 19th-century bricks underneath from the olden tymes. Also, can you investigate why our water bills have doubled this year? I know it’s a Federal issue, but I haven’t received my mail in five days. That would be nice.

I know it’s not sexy, but the little things that make a city livable and functional are the things that make me want to support a candidate. If you asked me what the most amazing thing this current city administration has done in the last four years is, I would answer immediately. They cross-trained garbage truck drivers as snow plow drivers so they could deploy them instantly when winter storms were on their way. Our streets have been salted and cleaned every time we get snow.

I’ve devoted my career to elevating the influence of big, heavy issues on individual outcomes-things like racism and classism, exposure to violence, or inequitable educational opportunities. I hope that anyone I vote for understands the root causes of problems like poverty, violent crime, and premature death. BUT! I also want to vote for someone who is realistic about what they can get done in the time they have. They can continue pushing on those big issues when running for Senate!

I greatly respect people who throw their hats in the ring. It takes enormous courage to put yourself out there like that, shake all the hands, and open your life up to criticism from random internet strangers like me. I know and love many people who have run for office — winners, and unwinners. Maybe one day, it will be my turn to plaster my face on a mailer. I’ll borrow a dog that looks less purebred than mine. I’ll take a picture of myself sitting at a kitchen table, drinking coffee and laughing with two older constituents. Or maybe I’ll take a picture where I’m talking to a youth on the street, jaw set in seriousness, telling them there’s no hope with dope.

I can already see my campaign statement:

“Hi, I’m Sarah, and I want to be your next 4th District representative. I’ve been many things: Zumba instructor, professor, bartender, barista, city bureaucrat, tech mogul, and candy salesperson. I love God, and I hate potholes. I once almost got ejected from a charity kickball game for fighting. I used to use SNAP and WIC benefits when my kids were little, but now I have a very nice front porch. I look forward to working with our amazing city staff to make sure that your sidewalks aren’t a health hazard!”

Do I have your vote?

Originally published at https://elgl.org on April 19, 2023.

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Dr. Sarah Marie Story

Lover of politics, data viz, storytelling, tech, and oversharing. Public Health champion, Policy PhD, reader/writer/runner/eater