Democracy was created in ancient Athens. It was perfected in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, which in 1998 solved the trickiest part of our representative election system — the human at the center — by electing a dog as mayor. Five dog mayors have since held the position. The most recent and newly elected is a six-month-old French bulldog named Wilbur.
But Nov. 3, 2020, was no normal dog mayor election in Rabbit Hash. A record-setting 22,985 votes decided the race, with the candidates’ individual tallies recorded on a whiteboard inside the historic town’s historic general store. By the end of the night, the board showed 13,143 votes cast for mayor-elect Wilbur. The vote total exceeded the town’s actual population by 13,142 votes.
At the top of the whiteboard, someone had written in green marker, “Vote early & often!”
The mayoral election of Rabbit Hash is, of course, not official. The hamlet was once a populated town on the banks of the Ohio River in Boone County, but today only about a dozen structures remain, including a 189-year-old general store (restored and rebuilt after a devastating fire in 2016) that’s become a tourist attraction. Without residents or public services to manage, there are no officials to elect, no city council to convene and no police departments to manage. The civic duties of the town belong to the nonprofit historical society that owns it.
That’s where the election comes in: The votes are dollars, and the election functions as a fundraiser for the society’s efforts to maintain and repair the town’s remaining buildings.
This openly corrupt election has made the town famous.
“In elections all over the world, whoever has the most money wins,” says Bobbi Kayser, the president of the Rabbit Hash Historical Society. “Since this is Kentucky, we're going to be honest about our elections.”
Kayser moved to the area 20 years ago. She remembers sitting on a picnic table in Rabbit Hash in 2001 when a “giant parade” passed through town. She was confused, so she consulted the locals sitting nearby.
“I asked someone, ‘What is this? And they said, ‘It’s Mayor Goofy’s funeral.’”
Kayser adds, “And that’s how I learned how our mayor was a dog.”
Indeed, Mayor Goofy — the town's first dog mayor — died in office in 2001 at the age of 16, leaving a puppo power vacuum until 2004 when a black lab named Junior won an election that attracted breathless coverage from CNN.
When Junior passed on in 2008, Kayser threw herself into a mayoral campaign for her border collie Lucy Lou, who managed to notch an interview with CBS Sunday Morning’s Bill Geist. (In an interview/walk, Geist had remarked to the canine-idate, “So you're trying to break that glass ceiling, huh? Hillary set all the groundwork for you — the first woman mayor of Rabbit Hash.”)
Indeed, Lucy Lou became the town’s first elected female mayor. She served as the uncontested executive for the next eight years, until the general store fire. A special election was called to raise funds to repair and rebuild the structure with period-accurate materials. The 2016 election victory went to Brynneth Pawltro, a cheerful pitbull who “got along famously” with her predecessor Lucy Lou, says Kayser.
On Tuesday, Brynneth lost her reelection bid to the challenger, Wilbur. The Rabbit Hash Historical Society called the election to raise funds to shore up the embankment separating the town from the Ohio River and to purchase a new porch and stairs for a barn.
But even for a dog election, things were different this year. With the coronavirus spreading, there were no rallies or parades for the campaigns to declare their positions and meet potential voters. Much of the campaign season took place online and on fundraising platforms.
And while the town’s previous elections have attracted news coverage (and even a one-hour TV special on Animal Planet), in 2020, there’s something undeniably resonant about a town that runs a self-consciously corrupt election system where every dollar is a vote and every candidate is an animal. It seemed to be just what people wanted to read while the country tore its collective hair out waiting for election results. Wilbur’s election has become a national distraction covered by virtually every major media outlet. Of course, each story is a smorgasbord of dog puns.
Wilbur’s owner, Amy Noland, says the media requests and messages “have just been non-stop” since the victory announcement. Wilbur has been featured on Fox News and CNN. Noland says she’s been interviewed by reporters in Germany, Canada and England.
But most of all, Noland says she’s found herself spending hours talking to the people who have left comments on the campaign’s Facebook and fundraiser pages. While a pandemic and all-too-real election raged outside, she says the effort to fake-elect her dog as the unofficial mayor of a town with no actual government wasn’t just a fun distraction, but also “helped me get through this moment.”
“I saw some comments say, ‘This is what the country needs,’ and it touched me,” she says. “The election is controversial, COVID-19 is controversial. This is what people need right now. ”
Of course, Mayor Wilbur is anything but divisive. And how could he be? He’s adorable. He’s a dog. And with a mandate of the voters, he’s ready to take charge of Rabbit Hash.
“The duties of the mayor,” Noland points out, “are to show up in town and gnaw on a bone.”
Four more years, Wilbur. Four more years.