Fairfield couple teams with students to create one-stop election source

FAIRFIELD — Jon Warburg had always voted in the state and federal elections, but hadn’t given much thought to the local ones until 2017.

He began to research who will appear on his ballot and was frustrated to find there wasn’t one place that compiled all of the candidates, their bios and statements. He could find information from the parties, local news outlets and the League of Women Voters, but said it was piecemeal.

That’s when he and his partner, Sarah Karlson, decided to create a one-stop source for Fairfield elections. Know Your Reps launched during the 2019 local election and has returned even bigger this year, including more candidate videos, responses and student volunteers.

“We’re trying to provide useful information,” Warburg said.

Karlson said the goal is to help residents become better informed voters and in turn “help build a better Fairfield.”

She said the people elected in November will have a hand in countless issues that affect all residents, from development to education to taxes and property values.

“The local elections are so important to our everyday lives that I can argue they should be paid attention to even more,” Karlson said.

All of the candidate information is generated by the candidates or parties. Each person also had the opportunity to make four videos explaining who they are, why they’re running, the issues they care about and why people should vote for them. About 25 candidates took them up on that offer.

“We’re a platform for the candidates to put their best foot forward,” Karlson said, adding they’re not operating an independent news organization.

“This is a starting point for people,” Warburg added.

Know Your Reps has also gotten more help from the town and other organizations to spread the word about the website.

“We’ve been getting broader support from organizations with a megaphone to get our message out, which has been important,” Warburg said.

The website includes information, not only about the 114 candidates running this year, but also basic information about how Fairfield’s town government works, including its makeup, structure and what each position or board does.

Evan Papageorge, a senior at Warde, said he’s learned a lot about local government from working on the project, going beyond what he already learned in his classes.

Aniket Martins, a junior at Ludlowe, agreed.

“I never knew there are so many positions that are volunteer-based and you run for,” he said, adding that while the first selectman is prominent, other boards that are key in making Fairfield’s wheels turn aren’t as much in the public eye.

He’s always followed politics, but was drawn to this organization after hearing about it through his work on the school newspaper, and learning it’s strictly information-based and nonpartisan.

Martin said he’s enjoyed working with Karlson, Warburg and all of the other high school students, as well as meeting the different candidates and elected leaders.

Last time around, the couple had three student volunteers who spent a lot of the time building the website and designing the logos for it.

Now, the initiative is up to seven students and counting, with the students focusing on the videos and spreading the word. All of the students attend either Ludlowe or Warde high schools.

Warburg said it was very important to get students involved. About two-thirds of the town budget goes to the schools and he believes education is crucial.

“I really wanted to get kids engaged as much as possible,” he said, adding it’s a civics lesson for both adults and teens.

The couple reached out to teachers in June to see if any of their students would be interested and began working with the volunteers in September.

Papageorge said he decided to volunteer after learning about it from one of his teachers because he likes to help others and supports sharing information from different perspectives. He also enjoys government and his interest in architecture has shown him the intricacies of local zoning.

He said he’s already gained media, people and interviewing skills. It’s also made him more aware of the different political thinking.

“I know it’s made me open to different political ideals,” he said, adding the interviews he’s done helped him compare and contrast the different platforms.

While Papageorge turns 18 in March and can’t vote this November, he’s directed his peers to the website to help prepare them for their first trip to the polls.

He hopes they and others use Know Your Reps to see the different viewpoints.

“I hope we get all eligible voters to vote and vote honestly and not be blinded by their party,” Papageorge said.

He hopes even more students join Know Your Reps for the next local election in 2023 so it can continue for generations.

Martins put the call out even earlier to interested students saying it’s not too late to get involved now.

“It’s an amazing organization,” he said. “We have a lot of fun and we get a lot of great work done.”