As the country anxiously awaited the final presidential election results for days on end, one Kentucky town was resting easy after the victor of its own heated election was declared on Election Day.
The town has never had a human mayor, but each election cycle, people from around the world cast their votes to elect a canine one. It’s mostly just fun and a distraction from the tension of human politics, but each voter pays $1 per vote and proceeds go to the Rabbit Hash Historical Society. This year, they raised nearly $23,000.
Although the 2020 race was razor-thin, Wilbur managed to come out on top in Tuesday’s final tally, beating out incumbent Brynneth Pawltro (or Mayor Brynn, as she is known) — a brown and white pit bull who entered office after being elected in 2016.
Mayor Brynn, who is 7, would not have enough support to clinch a second term.
“We think this is the most important election of 2020,” said Bobbi Kayser, president of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society.
The town tradition of electing an animal to oversee the community started in 1998, when Boone County — which governs Rabbit Hash — was celebrating its 200th anniversary.
“They asked all the mayors to honor that birthday, but Rabbit Hash didn’t have a mayor,” Kayser said. “We decided that the best way to get a mayor was to hold our own election.”
Since the town never had a human mayor, one man had the idea to put pets on the ballot.
“A gentleman by the name of Don Claire came up with the idea that a dog should be mayor. Dogs run this place anyway,” said Amy Noland, 43, Wilbur’s dog mom and a Rabbit Hash resident of 18 years. She has wanted to enter a dog in the election since she was a high school student and the tradition started, she said.
The historical society decided to begin facilitating town “elections” as a creative way to bring the community together, while simultaneously raising money for the nonprofit organization, which maintains the town’s buildings. Each ballot costs a dollar, and anyone from anywhere in the world can vote.
A friendly mutt named Goofy Borneman became the inaugural mayor of Rabbit Hash in 1998.
Initially, the rule was that a dog’s duration in office spanned its lifetime.
“If you were elected mayor, you were mayor for life,” Kayser said. “The first three mayors were elected without limitations and stayed in office until they died.”
Things changed in 2016, when the historic Rabbit Hash General Store was destroyed in a fire. Although Lucy Lou, a red and white border collie, was in office at the time, the town opted to call a snap election in a desperate effort to fund the reconstruction of the general store.
Plus, it also happened to be a particularly vitriolic U.S. election cycle, so the town decided that pet politics would be a welcome distraction from real politics.
It set a date for the election: Nov. 8, 2016 — the same day the U.S. presidential election was scheduled. When Donald Trump clinched the election, so, too, did Mayor Brynn.
This year, too, the mayoral election in Rabbit Hash was held the same day as the U.S. presidential vote, as a way to ease political tensions and lift spirits.
“As far as the community goes, making people laugh is a huge thing for us,” Kayser said.
Politics vary in the town, she added, describing it as a bit of a mixed bag.
“Boone County is largely Republican, but when you go to Rabbit Hash, there is a little pile of Democrats,” she said.
Like the 2020 presidential race, the campaign season in Rabbit Hash was tumultuous, as pets rallied to come out on top. Sixteen contenders — mostly dogs, with one donkey, a rooster and a cat in the mix — fought hard for the title of mayor.
“Although Wilbur did lead during the campaign, in the end, we knew anything could happen,” said Noland, adding that people often toss in a ton of votes on the final day, which tends to shift the so-called polls.
The campaign season typically commences in late August, when pet contenders strike up their own social media pages and parade around town, hosting “rallies.”
“One candidate even had a live music event,” Kayser said. “Everybody puts up signs, and they are hilarious.”
Wilbur’s platform advocated mental health and breast cancer awareness, in honor of Noland’s 65-year-old mother, who is a survivor.
People can vote in person at most businesses in town or online, where votes pour in from around the world.
“We get votes from everywhere. When Lucy was running in ’08, we had a whole contingent in Denmark that had flags,” said Kayser, explaining that the group crafted their own Lucy Lou paraphernalia.
Over the campaign, Kayser counts all the votes, and on Election Day, the winner is announced.
The town ambassador — a border collie named Lady Stone — announced the final verdict on election night, in a Facebook post that read: “The results are in from the most important election that happened this year!!”
Wilbur managed to rack up the highest number of votes in the town’s election history, claiming more than 13,000 ballots.
He was apparently thrilled with the results, “but when he won, he was super tired because he had campaigned that whole day,” Noland said.
The election raised $22,985 for the historical society, which will make a meaningful contribution toward tending to the town’s historic buildings.
“For me personally, every time I do something for this election, I’m not watching the TV and I’m not on Facebook, I’m having fun,” Kayser said.
Noland agreed: “I’ve gotten thousands of messages from people I don’t know just saying, ‘Thank you so much.’ It was a great distraction for everyone.”
Mayor Wilbur is getting primed for his new role as an elected official. His duties include sitting on the front porch of the general store, taking pictures with visitors and chewing on bones.
He’ll need to rest up. Campaigning for 2024 starts again in a few years.
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