It all started with Sharon Anderson.
In 1994, after Naomi Kritzer had matriculated from Madison, Wisconsin, to Carleton College, she first encountered the perennial right-wing kook candidate. Somehow, Anderson had wormed her way to the general election as the GOP-endorsed Attorney General choice. Skip Humphrey won that race in a landslide, but the experience shook Kritzer.
"Anderson's website looks like that meme with the guy with the bulletin board and all the strings; it’s full of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. She’s awful," Kritzer says. “When I would get to the part of the ballot with races I hadn’t heard about, I was like, ‘Well, I could just vote for the women… But oh no, what if one of them is like Sharon Anderson?'"
Kritzer later discovered online sample ballots and started researching candidates, with an emphasis on the down-ballot ones who don't receive much—if any—vetting. That digging produced examples of true weirdos, like a Soil & Water Conservation District Supervisor hopeful who, inexplicably, made same-sex marriage homophobia a pillar of his platform. Kritzer's first election guide went live in 2004.
“Because I needed somewhere to type what I was finding, I used my LiveJournal and then I posted it," she says. "I figured other people might find the research useful."
Kritzer ran her guide again the following year, but decided to skip '06. People noticed.
So, back by popular demand, she re-emerged in '07 with deeper dives and a more disciplined approach. The blog really took off in 2013, she says, when 35 candidates flooded the race for Minneapolis mayor, the first such election with ranked-choice voting. (Who could forget the candidacy of Captain Jack Sparrow, the Republican pirate who continues to receive stunt votes to this day?)
Kritzer upgraded her blog to WordPress in 2014, because by then LiveJournal felt prehistoric by internet standards. "A lot of people made fun of me," she confirms. She continued to churn out election guides year after year, always with a clear progressive point of view that, when applied to wacko candidates that mainstream press must take seriously, proved refreshing. (Ideologically, Kritzer aligns herself with the Wellstone wing of the Democratic Party.)
A professional author of sci-fi and fantasy, Kritzer finds that, at least locally, she has become more famous for her election-season output than her books.
“At some point, when people would meet me, they’d say, ‘Oh my god, I’m a huge fan of your work,'" the St. Paul-based writer says. "They never meant my science fiction, they always meant the political blogging. This is particularly funny when it happens at sci-fi conventions.”
Kritzer says election season reliably fills her with "anxiety and dread," and that some years the guide is easier to produce than others. Writing about the sheer nuttiness of some fringe personalities, like unlicensed Dakota County judicial candidate Michelle MacDonald, injects some levity and joy into the process, she reports.
While Kritzer's annual research partially relies on local news outlets, she has noticed the precipitous decline of journalistic investment in hyper-local politics. Countless studies, like this 2016 one from the University of North Carolina, confirm that hedge-fund ghouls, like this one that owns the Pioneer Press, are gutting newsrooms across the country. The result? Under-scrutinized candidates, lower voter turnout, and fewer people entering the political process, according to yet another study.
Post-Trump, the number of Sharon Anderson-types running for offices is not on the decline. That's just one reason Kritzer, election after election, keeps keeping up with reader demand.
“I just started doing this, right?" she says. "My main tools are Google and having a long Twin Cities memory. Sometimes I’ll get comments from people being like, ‘Who the hell are you to tell me how to vote?’ Nobody! I’m just providing this service for people who find it useful.”