Running for a seat on the obscure Metropolitan Water Reclamation District is among the most boring of political contests. Even the commissioners themselves admit that.
So how do you generate enough interest to get voters not only to care enough to vote, but also go the additional step of writing in a candidate’s name?
Think everything from social media to knuckle tattoos to the former ambassador to Canada.
And an easy-to-spell name helps.
All of that appears to have paid off for Democrat Cam Davis, the only candidate who racked up enough write-in votes to declare victory in last month’s unusual write-in election.
Davis faced a handful of other candidates for the nomination — and the challenge of running a last-minute campaign. That meant educating voters to take the extra step of writing in his name. It was the death of Commissioner Timothy Bradford just three days before the candidate filing deadline in December that required the unusual voting procedure, since candidates didn’t have enough time to collect signatures to get on the ballot.
“The campaign was a lot less about the candidate and a lot more about how to do the write-in,” Davis said.
According to final results on Tuesday, Davis was the only Democrat who reached the vote threshold. A minimum of 8,075 was needed to get nominated and placed on the November ballot, and Davis went far beyond, with a total of 54,183.
No Republicans filed for the write-in election, but that doesn’t mean Davis doesn’t have a fight ahead. Gov. Bruce Rauner appointed Republican David Walsh to fill the spot just days after last month’s primary, and his office said they believe Walsh should serve the remainder of Bradford’s term, which runs through 2020. That sets the stage for a likely court battle on who will fill the seat after the November election.
“The core issue here is whether the voters should decide who represents them or whether Gov. Rauner will decide for the voters,” Davis said.
Anthony Fowler, a University of Chicago associate public policy professor said water district elections normally have low participation because of low turnout and ballot roll-off, and low participation in a write-in election would be expected.
“The people who do participate in these kinds of elections are likely highly informed, which is probably a good thing from a democratic perspective,” Fowler said.
Commissioner Debra Shore said the campaign focused heavily in the 47th, 48th and 49th wards as well as Northfield, Niles and New Trier Townships, aiming to “target a number of constituencies in almost a surgical way, targeting informed conservation-minded voters.”
Shore, uncharacteristically, flashed her “C-A-M-D-A-V-I-S” knuckle “tattoos” in an edgy political ad a week before the election — and ad meant to grab the attention of voters who weren’t yet aware of the race for “one of the most boring political offices in the country.”
Max Temkin, co-creator of the popular game Cards Against Humanity, also got involved, writing the script for Shore’s ad. It ended with her pleading with voters “please don’t s— where you eat.”
“I think going into this race, nearly everyone, including myself, thought it was impossible,” Temkin said.
“Sometimes those are the best campaigns to work for, because everyone is open to crazy ideas.”
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Volunteers for the campaign stood outside polling places during early voting to remind voters about the unusual write-in election. Commissioner Josina Morita said she would tell voters to write in Davis’ name “between punch numbers 69 and 70” and “if you see Toni Preckwinkle, you’ve gone too far.”
Besides the support of Shore and Morita on the board, Davis was able to organize with the support of other Democrats. Davis, an attorney who worked in President Barack Obama’s administration and on Obama’s 2008 campaign, had the support of former ambassador to Canada under Obama, Bruce Heyman. The endorsements of U.S. Representatives Mike Quigley and Jan Schakowsky, as well as Sen. Dick Durbin, earned him some voters, as did the support from 47th, 48th and 49th Ward Democrats.
On Feb. 23, Cam Davis appeared before the Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board and was asked why he was running for commissioner of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District in the March 2018 primary.
With only two months to put together a campaign, Davis relied heavily on social media and email to get the word out.
“I really focused a lot on what I’ll call cyberroots outreach,” Davis said. “We got so many requests for yard signs and I’d have to say sorry we just can’t afford them.”
Election officials allowed various spellings of write-in candidates’ names, as long as they were sure of the voters intent.
And despite all the misspellings such as “Carn” or “C-5-M” or “Daves,” a name like Cam Davis lends itself to a write-in vote.
“One of the most common comments I would get standing outside of polling places was, ‘Thank god you have an easy name to remember and spell,’” Davis said. “So I’ll thank my parents for that later.”