Travelogue of an Unpolitician Running for Office

Karen McKim —

Private-life me

As recently as about a year ago, whenever I was asked if I had ever considered running for office, my answer was an adamant and sincere NO!

I have a hard time remembering names. I don’t like being the center of attention. On personality tests, I score ten in cooperation, zero in competitiveness. I frequently neglect to wear earrings and makeup when I go out. I’m not good at insincerity, and I tend to stay silent when the other option is telling people only what they want to hear. And—as you can tell from that list—I didn’t aspire to develop the attributes I saw as necessary to  be a politician.

And yet here I am, planning a press conference to announce my candidacy for Dane County Clerk. I can hear the year-ago me asking, “WTF are you doing? Are you crazy?”

MeAsACandidateAt 63 years old, I’m embarking on a journey I never thought I’d take. It feels enough like a trip to a foreign land that I’m going to try to blog it like a travelogue—Welcome to my first post.

Note to self: Stop saying WTF.

How I decided on this journey

Five years ago, I retired from my last job in government. My title was Research and Quality Assurance Manager for the Office of Family Care Expansion, if I remember correctly.

At that time, I was planning to start a second career in freelance writing, specifically how-to articles about political conversation. Not politicians’ manufactured and calibrated “messaging”, but how we regular folks can talk politics among ourselves. It’s a skill none of us get much opportunity to develop, considering the social prohibitions and the dysfunctional examples provided by the infotainment industry. But as a self-governing people, we need to be able to talk to each other without fighting. And if we don’t talk politics to our neighbors, the only political speech they hear will be brought to them by corporate sponsors.

To gather material for this endeavor, I became active in a local progressive grassroots group, the Grassroots Organization of Waunakee. From there, I wandered into the statewide group, the Wisconsin Grassroots Network, and got tagged as the coordinator of the Election Integrity Action Team and organized at a statewide priority-setting meeting in mid-2012.

As an election-integrity activist, I used the same skills I’d used as a professional public administrator—reading statutes, studying current practices, gathering data, interviewing public officials, researching other states’ and national best practices, writing reports, working with a committee to develop solutions—that sort of thing.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that Wisconsin’s elections are better managed than most states’. For example, we don’t use unauditable voting machines; our votes are counted right in our polling places; and our state and city election officials are nonpartisan. Most county clerks—who can be partisan under Wisconsin law—carry their party affiliation as a letter after their names, not as a mission.

I was a bit surprised to learn that one basic, prudent IT-management function–checking the accuracy of computer output before  using it for a big decision (i.e, who to swear into office)–wasn’t standard practice. Every IT professional and national election-administration authority recommends routine audits, and in 20 states they’re required. But in Wisconsin, it’s merely allowed, and because it’s never been encouraged by the state elections board, no county clerks perform any routine auditing on their own initiative before declaring election results final.

What really surprised me, however, was the Dane County Clerk’s resistance to the idea. I had always thought we had responsive, high-quality local government. So I had certain expectations of an elected official’s response when approached by a group of well-informed and well-behaved constituents, asking him to consider nothing more controversial, radical, or unrealistic than common-sense recommendations endorsed by President Obama and his Commission on Election Administration.

We didn’t get that response—not by a long shot. I’ll leave the hard-hitting stuff for my campaign website, not this travelogue. Suffice it to say we got a response more like the one you’d expect a public official would give to a group of tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists who were accusing him personally of hacking the voting machines.

We communicated with him—rather, tried to communicate—from mid-2012 when he was running for the office to mid-2015. By that July, our group had developed and tested a practical election-verification system consistent with state requirements and in compliance with national recommendations. We offered the county clerk a private demonstration, and invited him and the county board of supervisors to a public demonstration.

We got no direct response from the county clerk. However, a sympathetic supervisor forwarded to me a memo the clerk had sent to other local officials and to the media in an apparent and successful attempt to discourage their interest, dismissing our efforts as “unnecessary and I believe contrary to statutes.”

That memo was a disaster—misrepresenting our work as “asking for a recount after every election,” revealing naivete about voting-machine security, contradicting national consensus on management of election technology, garbling state law, and more. The team had already been uncertain how much longer we should be patient with him but with that memo he lost all of us. For three years we’d been trying to reach him, and he still didn’t understand the first word we’d said—and was trying to make sure no one else did either.

That’s when I looked into the job’s other responsibilities and into the incumbent’s qualifications, with the idea of finding someone to run against him. Rather quickly, I realized I did know someone more qualified—me.

The sensation was less one of “Oh, boy, I’ll run for county clerk!” than of seeing an accident, looking around, and realizing I am the only one close enough who can help. I had some qualms that I still feel. The biggest one is that I don’t need the job, and he still has kids in school. I find I have to remind myself, about once every other day, that my opponent has plenty of marketable political skills and powerful connections who can help him find a new job if loses the one he has. And besides, our elections are more important than any one man’s job security. I chuck myself under the chin and remind myself there’s a reason for elections—so that the people can decide.

Note: I really do want to keep this journal all the way through November, but I’m not making any bets about whether I can. As I learn about running for office—particularly as an independent with no party structure for support—I’m finding this is all more interesting and less unpleasant than I thought it would be.  Unpoliticians like me (and you?) probably need to run for office more often than we do, and maybe if I document my experience, it’ll ease the way for someone else. But running my campaign will need to come ahead of blogging about it. (Preview of a future post: You are the only one who is actually running for office, and cannot count on others to run your campaign for you.)

I’ll be honest in everything I write here, but I’m not promising to tell all. I am running for office, after all. It’s a sure thing over the next six months, there will be incidents that are embarrassing to me or to someone else. I’ll blog about them after the election!

4 thoughts on “Travelogue of an Unpolitician Running for Office

  1. Karen, good for you! I wish I lived in Dane County. I admire your efforts, your integrity, and your dedication to the important cause of good government for ALL!


  2. Karen, I admire your courage as well as your intelligence. One of the attributes we “women of a certain age” possess but often don’t recognize as such is the power to inspire. You will inspire others to act, and when they do, democracy and our social contract will be the better for it. Thank you.


  3. There are several groups that are working locally in the same issue area as your previous work on election integrity. I’m assuming you already know this, but I’m one that likes to be sure about these things.


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