How to Run for Local Office

The success of our democratic form of government depends on citizens volunteering their time and knowledge to maintain Harvard as the kind of community in which they wish to live. Many citizens have never considered participating in “politics,” but this is not the big city. Time and energy are necessary for anyone who does a good job as a town employee or as a community volunteer, and the act of running for office in Harvard can be rewarding.

Thinking about Running

Those who are concerned about the welfare of the town, who have ideas about town government and who like to work with people should consider running for office. Voters turn out when presented with choices. The factors you should consider are:

  • The job
  • The time commitment
  • Experience – what you bring to the job
  • Potential conflict of interest

The Job

A candidate should not seek office to change things that the office or position cannot change, so it is wise to be familiar with the scope of authority of the office as well as the mission and operation of the board or committee before making such an important decision.

A prospective candidate should talk to current committee members, attend committee meetings, and read the laws or bylaws that govern the responsibilities of the position to find out what the committee or board does. The Harvard town website lists all Elected Offices with links to pages for each board or committee. On those pages you will find:

  • Information about the mission and activities of the board
  • A list of current members (including vacancies)
  • Agenda for the next posted meeting and minutes from previous meetings

You can also following what’s happening on the boards and committees by:

  • Reviewing coverage in the Harvard Press
  • Watching board meetings on Harvard’s cable television. The schedule is posted on the HCTV website

Watching or attending the board meetings is one of the best ways to get a sense of how the board manages itself, its meetings, and its commitments.

Time Commitment

Local volunteers, appointees and elected officials often have other jobs and responsibilities. A candidate should weigh the balance between his or her qualifications and the demands of other commitments. A commitment to serve as a local official requires:

  • Attendance at meetings
  • Being available for committee work outside scheduled meetings
  • Time to research or become familiar with topics that may be presented to or discussed

At times during the year, committee work may necessitate frequent meetings and last-minute schedule changes, for example, during the winter months when boards may prepare Articles for approval by Town Meeting.

In addition, it is important for a public officials to be accessible. Most voluntary town positions do not have secretarial assistance or other office support. Family members will often have to take calls and messages.


While experience and skills in subjects related to the activities of a board or committee can be important, it is not always necessary to be an expert in order to be a good contributor. Some of the more important aspects of experience that count are:

  • Experience working in teams. All boards and committees have at least three members, so you will need to have a demonstrated ability to listen and work collaboratively.
  • A willingness to learn. You are not expected to have all the answers when you first show up for the job, but you must be willing to become informed and acquire the knowledge you need to make a contribution.

If you are interested in a board but not sure about running a campaign, consider presenting yourself as a potential appointee for a vacancy. When board and committee members resign before the end of their term, the Board of Selectmen appoints replacement members upon the recommendation of the board itself. See “Seeking or Accepting Appointed Positions.”

You may also think about volunteer organizations that support the board or committee. For example, if you are interested in the School Committee, become active in Harvard P.T.O. Similarly, if you are interested in the Conservation Commission, you might join the Harvard Conservation Trust and volunteer to contribute to their activities. This kind of volunteering can provide you with first-hand knowledge about the work, and you will get to know the people who currently serve on these boards. You can find a list of volunteer organizations in the Village Nursery School Phone Book.

Potential Conflict of Interest

All public officials are required to review and abide by the Massachusetts Conflict of Interest Laws. If there are any circumstances related to your employment interests or investments that could put you in conflict, it would be wise to get advice before seeking office.

Getting Organized

Once you decide to run for office, you should form a campaign committee. Some members are likely to be people you consulted while making the decision, those who encouraged you to run and who are your supporters. A key person on the committee is a finance chair, as there are state laws relating to campaign financing that you must follow. (See Campaign Financing, below.)

Your campaign committee can help you with any of the tasks and events listed in the rest of this section, including the nomination process, getting the word out, helping you prepare for debates and candidates’ forums, organizing poll watching, etc.

Campaign Financing

Massachusetts is very specific about record keeping as well as the receipt and expenditure of campaign funds. Candidates who spend any amount on a campaign must keep track of all income and expenses, regardless of the amount, and all services and goods donated. These records must be kept for the duration of the term of the office sought, whether or not a candidate is elected. Information on the record-keeping requirements is available from the Town Clerk or from the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance:

How to Get Your Name on the Ballot

Any registered voter may have his or her name placed in nomination. Our local elections are non-partisan. There are three ways of running for office:

  • Through Town Caucus
  • Through nomination papers
  • As a write-in candidate

Town Caucus

In February or March each year, registered voters gather to nominate candidates for town offices. The Town Clerk prepares a list of all positions that are due for election. 

Any registered voter can attend and may nominate any registered voter for an open position. If you have decided to run for office, you should be present and arrange for someone to place your name in nomination at the time that candidates for that position are solicited.

The Caucus nominates, by vote of those present, two candidates for each open position. Those candidates so selected have CAUCUS NOMINEE printed with their names on the ballot. A candidate does not have to be present at Caucus to stand for election. All candidates must sign a certificate of nomination as soon as possible and before the deadline for nomination papers. Any candidate who does not receive Caucus endorsement may still run by taking out nomination papers.

Nomination Papers

Candidates may file nomination papers for any local elective office. A candidate should get the form from the Town Clerk and collect the required number of signatures (41 in 2014) from registered voters. The deadline for filing the papers with the Town Clerk is 35 days before the local election. 

Additional signatures help ensure that the minimum number will be validated by the Town Clerk. It’s a good idea to be sure that the signatures are legible, carry individuals’ full names (or at least middle initials) in case of family similarities, and that people really are registered to vote!

Write-in Candidates

If a candidate decides to seek elective office after the nomination paper deadline, he or she must do so as a write-in or sticker candidate.

There are no particular requirements for running as a write-in candidate, other than being a registered voter in Harvard. Some means of getting one’s name and address to the voters is necessary.  In the past, write-in candidates have taken out newspaper advertisements or obtained printed stickers to hand out at the polls, but you must be sure to request voters to include both your name and street address when they write your name in. (General Law 54:77 states: “The voter shall …mark(ing) a cross (X) in the square at the right of the name of each candidate …or by inserting the name and residence of such candidate in the space provided therefore ….” [emphasis added].)

If you are planning a write-in campaign, it’s a good idea to notify the Town Clerk in advance of the election. This will help the registrars organize the tallying of votes after the polls close.

Small Town Campaigning

In a small town, any candidate for public office will have to consider the consequences of conducting a campaign that strongly criticizes an incumbent, another candidate or the actions of a committee. Committee members cannot work well together in an adversarial atmosphere. It is no less important to remember that in a small town an opponent is a neighbor. Talk to current committee members, some of whom may be open to a new opinion. Listen and learn. A new point of view may have broad public support, so a careful campaign can educate committee members, who will recognize that the public has a strong interest in change. Under all circumstances, be accurate about facts and figures. Voters do pay close attention and inaccurate facts and figures can lead to the defeat of a position.

Campaign Techniques

While deciding to throw one’s hat in the ring may be hard, the actual campaign can be fun and educational.
There are many campaign techniques, but campaigning in Harvard is low-key.


The League of Women Voters and the Harvard Press usually co-sponsor public meetings at which candidates present themselves to the voters, opening sticky issues to debate. Time, place and format for these discussions will be available well in advance of the Town Election. The League works with prospective candidates to ensure their availability, to familiarize them with the ground rules for the debate, and often to provide them in advance with one or more questions that the League will ask. The debates sometimes include taking questions from the floor.

In addition, the Parent Teacher Organization (P.T.O.) has occasionally held an evening forum for School Committee candidates.

Getting the Word Out

A candidate will need friends and volunteers to help get ideas widely known:

  • Some candidates plan neighborhood coffees to allow one­-on-one discussions with voters. Typically a supporter calls friends and neighbors and invites them to meet the candidate in his or her home.
  • Canvassing, phone calls, phone trees, direct mail pieces are all ways to get candidate’s names and views in front of others in town.

Letters to the Editor and advertisements in the local newspapers are other ways to publicize one’s positions and reasons for seeking office:

  • You may write letters to the editors of the local newspapers and also ask supporters to write letters on your behalf. If you have multiple supporters writing letters, you might want to be sure that these differ in some significant ways, providing reasons for their support that reflect different aspects of your experience or qualifications.
  • The Harvard Press has a published its policy on political ads, including information about how you must handle inclusion of the names of supporters in ads.
  • Deadlines for letters to the editor are normally Tuesdays at noon. Letters are reviewed and published as they are received, dependent upon available editorial space, and should be 350 words or less, including signatures. During election periods, the Harvard Press does not publish, in the week before the election, letters to which candidates may want to respond. 
  • Letters and any queries should be emailed to

The Town Clerk maintains the voter list, which has the name and address of every registered voter in Harvard and is available for a fee. Using that list or the telephone book, a candidate can identify supporters. Volunteers can call to introduce a candidate and determine possible support, keeping track of responses for use during poll watching, if you choose to do that.

Campaigns get visibility from bumper stickers or car magnets, or signs with the candidate’s name, held by supporters, at the Transfer Station or at the Town Center. When you organize times for holding signs, be mindful of traffic patterns – you might want to be at the center of town during rush hour, for example, but be sensitive to disrupting school drop-off and pick-up times. You might alienate more voters than you attract!

For many years, Harvard had a taboo against lawn signs and posters for any elected office. Local Republican and Democratic Town Committees respected and abided by this unwritten rule, but in recent years some candidates have chosen to use signs.

If You Are Unopposed

It often happens that candidates are unopposed for office. In this case, you do not need to do all the work listed above, but you should prepare to be able to talk about:

  • Why you are running
  • What qualifies you for the position
  • What you hope to accomplish in the position

You may be asked these questions if interviewed by one of the local newspapers. You may also have the opportunity to introduce yourself at a candidates’ forum or other venue.

Election Day

On Election Day, poll workers, and candidates themselves, are allowed to stand 150 feet from the polling place and hold a sign with a candidate’s name. These volunteers may greet voters or pass out literature. However, no buttons or stickers are allowed within 150 feet, so supporters will need to remove those before they go in to vote.

If you think an election may be close, you or your supporters may want to organize poll watching. Poll watchers are volunteers who sit inside the polling place and check off names on a supporters list as people check in to vote. Typically, the volunteers stop this operation a few hours before the polls close, and other volunteers will then place phone calls to supporters who have not yet voted.

An election night party is up to the candidate. Some candidates prefer to be alone until the returns come in; others have found it fun to share the evening with friends and campaign workers as a way to say thank you. 


Resources for running for office or volunteering for a position: