Exclusive Interview: RunForOffice.org Founder Jim Cupples

Jim Cupples is the founder of RunForOffice.org, a website that allows users to find local and state government positions in their area and information about how to run for each office, when the filing deadlines are, even the salary of the position. Millennial Politics spoke with Jim about his website, protesting, voting technology, and more.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Tell me a little bit about RunForOffice.org, what the website does for the people who visit?

RunForOffice is a website that allows people to enter their address and see what they can run for, and that’s in a very comprehensive manner. The focus for RunForOffice isn’t necessarily the congressional seats or the state seats and things like that; what we wanted to show people were all the local opportunities for them to get involved. Not everyone has the financial means to launch one of those big campaigns or has those types of connections; however, people can run for these other seats, especially millennials. You know, this site is not ageist. It has no specific millennial direction towards it. However, by putting this information in a database online that’s searchable, it helps millennials.

And one of the reasons for that is, prior to this, the information for this has been held at the county elections office level, and also county parties. And they’re gatekeepers, right? Both big parties are gatekeepers, in a sense, on the county level. They recruit who is in that county clique, they also recruit people that have the independent means to finance their own campaigns, and a lot of times millennials are not in either of those groups. So this project and site is meant for everyone that’s not recruited to run for office, but wants to get involved, and a lot of that is millennials. And as a generation-Xer, you know, I’m 43 years old, I welcome their energy and their viewpoints.

What prompted you to start this organization? I can’t imagine there’s very much money for you in it, what was your motivation to start it in the first place?

My motivation to start this project was looking at my ballot in Oregon and seeing, repeatedly, around two-thirds of the ballot would be unopposed or no one filed for the position, and I thought that was crazy. I especially felt that, because I live in a college town and college community, where the environment is, like, really front and center on people’s minds here. I mean, Eugene, Oregon, in a lot of ways, is accurate to its reputation, right? So, there are hippies here, and they care about the environment and things like that. However, we would have these positions that were never filed for, and they would be things like water districts, public utility districts, and other positions that were related to the environment. So I was convinced that it was not lack of interest on the part of these groups, and these people that care about these things, it was simply a matter of getting the information to them, and people recruiting them. So, I mean, our site isn’t a recruitment tool for the individual, it’s more just for anyone to have access to, but that was the origin of working on this, just simply seeing all these under-competed races and at the same time knowing that there are people looking to get involved, and that they would prefer to hold office as opposed to protesting.

Protesting is the symptom to political illness, right? I mean, you don’t want to be there, you want to have a seat at the table, and be able to make decisions that do not put your views where they have to be protested in public to achieve them. You should want to be at the table, and that goes for environmental matters [and other things], you know, we’re following up on the Charlottesville weekend. Some of that is, I would say right there, points to why we need new elected officials. And I’m not saying Charlottesville is completely an elected official problem, but I was watching over the weekend and I have issues with how the police performed, on many different levels. And I also make the case, hey, your police chief is hired by your city council, your sheriff is directly elected, your district attorney is directly elected. Those are the people that set the legal and police tone in your community, and if you want to fix that, you’d better get some new candidates, because that’s what people react to. Even if your candidates don’t win, you have to compete against people and show them that there’s an interest.

Definitely. I read an article from the New Yorker recently about how protests are great, but at the end of the day, you have to get down into the actual business of government. Is this website a way to help people get more active past just protesting and actually being involved in their government?

Yes. And, personally, I’m fairly politically active. The site is non-partisan, it’s non-partisan to its core, and who we share information with. There’s no paywall, and there’s no email wall. So it’s available for everyone. However, I’m fairly active with local politics and when we talk about protesting in my local groups, I’m sometimes going to participate, and other times I’m much more interested in looking at where is the elected official lever that applies to this problem, and thinking through, we should be recruiting candidates that care about these issues. So, when people talk about civic engagement, it’s for so long been limited to voting, and I’m afraid it goes beyond that. It goes beyond voting, it goes beyond protesting, we also need candidates, and that’s what the site is about.

I went on the website and typed in my home address, and it came back with a list of over 30 positions from local school board all the way up. That’s some pretty impressive work already. Where do you go from there in terms of expanding, and are there any places you still haven’t covered?

We’re only about ten to fifteen percent done, this could have over 500,000 offices and we’re hoping to have that within a year. We have no ambition short of every publicly elected position being retrievable by entering your address, and every citizen having access to that information.

That sounds great; I’m glad to hear it. So how did you get started politics, or rather being active in public service?

I went to the University of Oregon and studied political science. When I graduated, I didn’t exactly have the opportunity to exercise that at all. However, I’ve always been interested in politics, and on the local level. So, for me, it was simply, having a bachelor’s degree in political science, yet, embarrassingly, not knowing what I could run for. So a lot of this project started as me scratching my own itch, and saying we have all these political leaders in our community, but where are their first steps, you know, how did these people get on our community college board? Or, run for city council, what were those offices preceding that? So, my civic involvement prior to working on this website didn’t go beyond voting myself, attending demonstrations whenever I thought that was appropriate, but it was nothing other than that.

The most exciting part about this whole adventure, for me, has been a now four-year education in technology. As I mentioned, I’m 43, so I’m certainly computer literate and computers have been a part of my daily life, however, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to work as a pseudo-engineer and design product and do a lot of other things in the tech industry. Regarding having a political science background and working in civic tech, I am a really strong advocate for anyone that has a political science degree, or is studying political science, or is simply interested in politics and not taking any college courses, you certainly don’t need that. But I really encourage everyone, if the path is similar to my own where you don’t know technology too well but you know that there’s a technology fix, you just have to pursue that and look for partners because the good ideas come from those of us who aren’t restricted by things that maybe engineers know. There’s a real benefit to kind of being an outsider and dreaming of these products, especially in civic tech, that you think can help people. Don’t let a lack of engineering classes or experience stop you. To me, that’s a benefit, you just have to find the complimentary pieces.

Do you think there’s a lot of room to grow with public service tech? I was always thinking maybe an app or online voting systems would be more accessible, especially to younger people. Do you think that’s something that local and state governments should try to expand to and explore?

Yes, no doubt, we’re really only getting started in where civic tech is going. There are a couple places that are just going to explode in growth with that and one of them is surely voting machines and technology. Here in Oregon where I live, there are no voting machines. We vote by mail, 100 percent. That’s not perfect, but that shows that it’s one of the steps on this continuum where voting is going to be easier and easier for citizens to do. And it’s an interesting thing that you bring up because voting, voter fraud, voter suppression, all of these things, there is a technological solution for them. It’s already growing, it’s going to continue to grow, and I see civic tech, all in all, in the next five or ten years it’s going to explode. Facebook tying in who your local elected officials are is really just the tip of the iceberg in how our social is going to be intertwined with our personal politics on a top to bottom level. And in some ways, that’s a little bit daunting because politics is tied to emotion, and I don’t know about you but I’m like emotionally drained after Charlottesville and some of this stuff. It’s a fascinating time and I want to be in it to work for expanding who’s running for office.

You brought up emotions, these can definitely be emotional times for a lot of people; do you have any candidates or anything in the political world you’re particularly excited about? Something that makes you hopeful about the future of our country?

Yeah, absolutely! I do, I think we’re going through a really tough time but I do see some, certainly, rays of hope. One of them is women leadership and younger leadership, I see that happening. I see that happening on the website that I direct, RunForOffice.org, I see that in my Facebook feed, my Twitter feed, and that to me is encouraging. Women are underrepresented, millennials are underrepresented, and people of color are underrepresented, and those trends are upwards [in that they have more] candidates, and I think they will also be winning races, so that’s certainly encouraging. I recently worked with a group called the Merced County Action Group in California and we filed candidates for just about every natural resource position, a lot of them millennials. You know, that’s good work, that’s what keeps you going.

Absolutely. I keep telling everybody that’ll listen that millennials are the future of the country (obviously) and, especially if more of my colleagues and classmates in college would be more interested in politics and being active, trying to run for office, that would definitely make a difference, so I’m glad you see it the same way.

Yes.

But on that same note, I’ve spoken to other millennials who seem discouraged from politics and taking a public opinion on these matters, because they see so much hate and anger, especially online. What would you say to young people across the country who might be apprehensive about getting involved or speaking their opinions because they’re afraid of the backlash political speech might receive?

I would say step carefully in social media, in what you post, and try to see where people are coming from. I think sometime there is an opportunity for us all to grow and try to understand why we disagree with others. So as someone who’s had some backlash on myself online, it’s not fun, it’s embarrassing, all that stuff, so I would say tread lightly there and understand that people might jump all over you and retweet you and hate on you and stuff, but we can’t let that be what prevents us from getting involved with things that matter. Those are pixels on a screen and there are real issues and real lives that are at stake so don’t let the twitter hate prevent you from getting involved. As I said, tread lightly, and try not to put anything too bombastic on there until you’ve thought it through, I speak from personal experience, but don’t let that discourage you.

Any final message for our readers about the world, our country, any new projects or anything you want to share that we haven’t covered?

Yeah, I’d like to encourage [people] to use the site and to build on the site. We have opportunities for people to volunteer and crowdsource information in their own states, in their own communities, and that’s how this thing works, that’s why there’s free access to it. If you think it’s a worthwhile tool, please volunteer and give it an hour, and if not, simply spread the word about it. I’d like to have this information available to as many people that are interested in getting involved.

You can follow Jim on Twitter @jimcupples and his organization RunForOffice @RFONB.

Go to the website RunForOffice.org to learn more about your local races and how you can get involved.

Jake is a college student studying political science at UCSB.

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