How often have you heard Harry S. Truman’s phrase: “The most important job I ever held was that of precinct committeeman”? If you are involved in local and state politics, you may have heard this phrase quite often. Depending on who you ask within the Democratic establishment, precinct committee persons can be incredibly important or of very little consequence. What made Truman believe the position was important? How do we make a position like a precinct committee officer meaningful?
In this series, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about how to staff someone else running for office. This week, let’s talk about a race where even laypeople can put themselves on the ballot and make changes for a better Democratic party.
The statutory role of precinct persons
So, before we begin I want to point something out that many forget: The role of the precinct committee is an elected one everywhere I personally have encountered, and as such, there is no obligation on someone who runs for the precinct committee person to actually do anything other than run for office and win. In fact, if your precinct committee person decides to not support the Democratic candidate in many areas, you can’t do much or anything about it. The same precinct committee person could just sit at home through the election and not work a precinct to help turn out Democratic voters. A precinct committee person can have a personal feeling about the county or state party and work in their own way to ask for changes to both organizations that can have far-reaching and damaging results.
Finally, and most importantly, in many states a precinct committee person will be the one who votes on replacements should a party-elected official in their state district retire before their term ends. A room of less than a handful of people can decide who is the representative in the statehouse.
This is why, depending on who you speak to in the Democratic community, precinct people matter a lot or they don’t matter very much. Many are swayed to the idea that mass media and the lack of interest in running for the post leave many counties full of precinct people who are older, disinterested, and view it more as social status than purpose.
Running a precinct committee race is easy, the work is not
In many states, putting yourself on the ballot as a precinct committee person is quick, easy, and cheap. The race itself is even cheaper as most candidates face absolutely no opposition. This can lead to people saying to themselves that it is easy enough, they can sit back and relax.
Instead, use this time to help build connections within your precinct, find other Democratic voters like yourself, and talk to them about the issues. Help people make a plan to turn out to vote. Keep track of voters who may have a more difficult time voting for any reason. Whatever you can do personally to be the point of contact for voters and to get them to know you, do it. Tell voters up front that you are not an elections official, but you are someone who wants to help make sure people can vote and you can provide the resources they need.
Protect gains we make
Every cycle there will be some who will be hurt, upset, or angered by the direction of the party. While I’d love to say they are all progressives looking for change, be prepared for some to point fingers at progressives and blame progressive messaging and ideas for “all the losses.” I’ve more than once heard from precinct committee members and even county members that “if it wasn’t for our position on XYZ, we could …” No, no, no, and no again.
Let me explain this as easily as I can: In the choice between a fake Republican and a real Republican, the real Republican will win every time. Trying to take on conservative ideas to win over a few votes only alienates our potential voters and wins over very few actual voters.
Because precinct committee persons help choose county party chairs and can be part of district committees, they can influence how counties operate, utilize funds, and influence the direction that the party takes in their area. If you don’t have enough precinct committee persons, it is very easy to end up with a county party that is at odds with the purpose of the Democratic party.
Maintaining a positive, progressive presence as members of the local committee makes sure that bad tendencies don’t come back up and shape the party in a way that ends up as real losses.
Are you prepared to run?
If you are, great! if you aren’t, there is another way to do it: If your district has no representation, you can ask your county chair to be appointed to the precinct committee. If you are too late to register to run for the office, it doesn’t mean you are too late to hold it.
Many county party chairs love to appoint new precinct members to show interest in the county party as well as to have new potential volunteers and workers when the party needs them most.
What’s next for you?
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