Evaluating Candidates for Local Office

Specific Qualifications

To the extent possible, one should try to determine whether the candidate has suitable qualifications for the performance of the job he or she is seeking. Professional degrees, work experience, and background might be considered assets (for example, having a sanitary engineer or a medical professional on the Board of Health), but are not absolutely necessary. If a candidate is plausible and sincere, the voter must determine whether that person will be able to get the job done.

Time and Accessibility

The candidate should be asked about the amount of time he or she believes the job will require. The estimate should be realistic; a candidate’s other responsibilities should not interfere with the conduct of government.

Difficulties arise when candidates with strong credentials are simply too busy to meet the responsibilities of the position. Will the candidate have time for the day-to-day requirements of the office as well as the sudden demands that may exceed the “usual” workload? Local boards and committees rarely have the luxury of secretarial assistance or other amenities considered basic to the ordinary business office. Committee members must share this work among themselves, and every candidate for local office should be prepared to shoulder some of the burden. As mentioned earlier, a candidate should be able to prove that he or she will be available to the citizens.


Leadership can call for taking a stand and interpreting it effectively, or framing the options between opposing views so that the community will respond with support. Communication between officials and the community is essential to a participatory system. Citizens should expect elected and appointed officials to communicate with them. And officials can reflect community viewpoints only if citizens take the responsibility to communicate with the office holders.


The best way to find out if an incumbent is doing his or her job is to attend committee or board meetings and observe, or watch proceedings on Harvard’s cable television channel (HCTV).

When an incumbent is being challenged in an election, find out if the challenge is being made because people are interested in a change. Learn their reasons and try to determine if a change would indeed improve the way things are done. It is also helpful to talk to members of other committees whose work is related.

You can access and review minutes of board and committee meetings on the town website. From these, a citizen can ascertain an attendance record. It is appropriate for an incumbent to defend his or her right to remain in a position by providing the voters with examples of contributions and specific accomplishments.

False Issues

The candidate’s assessments must be realistic; the solution he or she proposes must be realistic. The voter should try to delineate the issues, watch for the candidate who avoids direct answers or who answers the wrong question and be wary of the candidate who distorts facts. The wise observer will not be misled by false issues or by candidates who promise more than they can deliver.


The way a candidate runs a campaign can provide important clues to how that candidate would perform as a public official. A contender who runs an open, straightforward, issue-oriented campaign can be expected to be an accessible, forthright, and thoughtful public official.