The Citizens Handbook
Rating candidates for public office

Charles Dobson

Since 1911 the Municipal League of Kings County (Seattle) has been assembling evaluation committees that rate candidates seeking public office. Seattle papers publish the recommendations of these committees as a guide for voters who do not have the time to investigate candidates in depth. In many ways an evaluation committee resembles a citizens jury.

The Municipal League begins by assembling an unbiased committee that will evaluate political candidates as if they were people applying for a job. The League tries to ensure the committee is a microcosm of the voting community, with members representing a mix of age, sex, education, income, ethnic background, and political orientation. The League asks various organizations to participate, then asks individuals who come forward to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions asks would-be evaluators to define their place on the political spectrum by putting an x on a scale that ranges from radically right to radically left. Using this and other information, a group of people who have served on a recent committee select the new evaluation committee members.

The new committee receives some training before it goes to work. It then reviews background material on the candidates, including press clippings and the candidates' resumes. The committee also checks the references supplied by the candidates. Next, the committee interviews each candidate for half an hour with a standard set of revealing questions.

Following the interview, committee members score candidates for knowledge (candidates should be well-versed in major issues), involvement (candidates should have a record of community service and be familiar with their constituents), character (candidates should be free of questionable character attributes and questionable history), and effectiveness (incumbents should have a proven record of accomplishments in office; challengers should be able to demonstrate success in past endeavors).

A candidate evaluation project is a good way to sidestep the influence of money and to elect better people to public office, but it requires resources and a credible organization to sponsor the project. Little-known organizations might be able to pull off a successful project by getting a media partner and a number of respected people to oversee the process.

This rating process resembles a hiring process and suffers from some of its limitations. To get a better sense of how well incumbents are performing, an evaluation committee might also incorporate the views of council watchers (people who go to council meetings or watch them on TV), and the confidential views of city staff. Too often incumbents get lazy and don't do their homework. They don't bother to read staff reports, or take the time talk to local residents. Council watchers and city staff should be able to spot lazy (and sometimes crazy) incumbents who should not be re-elected.

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