Guide to Your Local Election Ballot
When it comes to local government, it's always election season.
By Emma Sarran Webster
Since the 2016 presidential election, America has become fired up about politics in a way that the country as a whole wasn’t before. We’ve seen it in the massive wave of activism and resistance, in people contacting their federal representatives, and in an amped-up interest in special congressional elections.
There’s also been a huge increase in people running for office, mostly at the local level. And that’s great, but it’s only part of the equation. In order for change to occur, there also has to be a swell of people voting at the local level. It doesn’t grab the big headlines, and it doesn’t come off as particularly thrilling, but local (or municipal) politics are actually extremely important.
“Local government is the government closest to home, and decisions made at the local level are often what impact your quality of life the most each day,” Daniel Anderson, elections team managing editor at Ballotpedia, tells Teen Vogue. “It’s really about quality of life. It’s so many of the things that you don’t even notice, you don’t even realize are being influenced by your local government.” Your city government is responsible for everything from public transportation to policing, voting laws and accessibility, affordable housing, and so much more.
Even so, an alarmingly low number of people actually turn out to vote in these elections. “In some areas, less than 5% of voters will come out to vote,” Daniel says. “Sometimes, less than 2% or less than 1%.”
It’s certainly important to spread the word and increase those turnouts; but in the meantime, there is a silver lining to those of us who do show up to the ballot boxes on local election day. “It’s actually a tremendous opportunity,” Daniel says. “With fewer people voting, your vote counts even more toward the outcome.”
But what and who are you voting for, and when? That’s where it gets a bit tricky. Local elections don’t have the same schedules, structure, and consistency that federal elections do. While many do coincide with the “big” November election day (which falls on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November), many others take place throughout the year. “There are elections happening across the country for local and state officials, and local and state ballot measures, almost every single month,” Daniel says. “For many months in the year, it’s almost weekly. If you’re only paying attention every two or four years, you’re missing out on many opportunities to make your voice heard.”
To find out when you should be voting, you can consult with your city or county board of elections or county clerk, or use Ballotpedia’s Sample Ballot Lookup tool. That will also tell you what offices will be on your next ballot — another thing that vastly varies from city to city. However, there are some offices that are more common than others. Below, some of those positions and what the roles entail.
The mayor is essentially the head of the city, but the amount of power a mayor has and the responsibilities they take on varies among municipalities.
Many people likely believe the mayor is to a city what the governor is to a state or the president is to a country: the executive. And in some cases, that’s true, and that person has vast influence and power. “This might be a person who is proposing a budget to the city council for approval,” Daniel says. “They may be able to veto city council ordinances. They probably have a range of different executive powers. They might have the city police department, fire departments, and other city officers reporting to him or her.”
But in other cities, Daniel explains, the mayor serves as more of a figurehead and symbolic leader of the city council without having much more (or any more) power than the city council president has. “In those cases, an appointed person called a city manager will often handle the day-to-day administration of the city,” he says. “In what you might call a council manager system, the mayor is generally doing public relations activities — things like, when a new business opens, cutting the ribbon. If the city has a sister city in a different country, often you’ll have representatives of the cities of both countries go to see the other one. The mayor would probably lead that expedition or welcome the guests coming into the country.”
Ballotpedia does in-depth coverage of the 100 largest cities by population in the United States, and according to Census Bureau figures, all of them have an elected city council. In total, Daniel says, there are over 1,000 city council members across those 100 cities.
The city council holds a lot of responsibility. “There’s nobody who advocates for local communities or constituents more than the city council,” Geri Prado, senior director of state and local campaigns at EMILY’s List, tells Teen Vogue. While your congresspeople represent you and your neighbors on a federal level and from a distance, your city council “impacts you in a more direct way,” Geri says. “And when things start to fall off, the reasons generally are because of city administration. For example, bad roads: That’s both [a] federal and local [issue]. Nobody gets more upset [than] when they can’t get out of their driveway or can’t catch a bus in order to get to work. That sounds silly, but those are people’s livelihoods. Same thing is true if, for example, people are going to build a huge box store in the community but won’t pay a living wage for that community.”
The council is the one governing your city. “Essentially, it’s the legislative body of a city government,” Daniel says. “It’s passing ordinances. It might enact taxes in the area. It might put a referendum on the ballot. In some city councils, they have an influence over the local school system. There’s some that directly oversee and control the school district’s budget.” In addition, the city council is responsible for creating or passing the city’s budget, which includes funding for agencies, like the fire and police departments, zoning, waste and water services, and plenty more.
While Daniel says that mayor and city council are by far the most common locally elected offices, you may find county clerk or court clerk on your ballot, too. In some cities, it may be an appointed position rather than an elected one. He notes that in many cases, the clerk is an administrative position, “overseeing the day-to-day operations of the local judicial system.”
But in other cities, the county clerks are responsible for running elections, which is a big job. “Consider what it looks like when there are long lines on election day,” Geri says. “The county clerks, depending on where it is, can really be responsible for making sure those things run smoothly — the machines are up and running; the poll watchers and workers are trained. It’s a lot of responsibility. Sometimes those types of positions are really overlooked, but you can see the impact of not having an efficient office holder or people in place who know how to do that at those levels.”
The clerk can also have a huge impact on who gets to vote. “Where they put early voting sites directly impacts who can participate,” Geri says. “If it’s not along bus lines for people who don’t have cars, you’re impacting a community in an adverse way.” If you’re in a city where the county clerk is responsible for designating polling places and it’s an elected position, as a voter, you “could really be responsible for helping make sure that there’s fair representation and equal voting access around your city.”
The school board in many districts is most likely elected, Daniel says. While the responsibilities and logistics are unsurprisingly different in various cities, the board often holds quite a bit of power. That may include selecting a superintendent, determining curriculum, making other administrative decisions, and handling a lot of money. “It controls a budget that will often run in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars every single year,” he says.
That’s particularly jarring, he points out, when you consider the extremely low voter turnout of local elections. It’s not to say members of school boards aren’t qualified, but they have a huge amount of influence without being vetted, so to speak, by the constituents. “These are just people in the community who might be parents, lawyers, or doctors, or just residents who have an interest in education in the area,” Daniel says. “It’s a big responsibility that people are assuming when they’re elected into school office. You can easily envision the scenario of a parent thinking, ‘Okay, you know, I kind of want to be involved in this,’ and getting elected. They ran a little campaign, and now they’re one of seven people who are controlling a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars every year.”
Comptrollers don’t always exist at the local level (versus the state level), and they’re not too often elected, but it’s possible you could see this one on your ballot. The office is similar to that of the treasurer (which you also might vote for), and responsibilities generally involve overseeing and handling the city’s budget and finances. And, just to make things extra confusing, the job is called “controller” rather than “comptroller” in some governments.
Lastly, there are special districts, which are about as niche as they get. “A special district is a type of government that exists to fill one particular purpose, such as providing water services or funding your local libraries, and special districts have the power to tax you if you live within its boundaries,” Daniel says. “Those boundaries can vary dramatically. It might be an entire city; it might be a city block; it could be one residence. Special districts are like the molecular level of government. You can’t really get smaller than the special district.”
For example, he notes, airports often have special districts overseeing their operations — California even has “mosquito” districts that could consist of only a few people, which fight mosquito infestations and have the power to levy taxes.
Again, while these elected offices are some of the most common, it’s very possible your local ballot will have other roles as well (or instead). To know for sure, do some research on your own; perhaps using Ballotpedia’s tool and contacting your city’s board of elections or county clerk. As overwhelming as it may seem to devote your attention to yet another political issue, the more you vote locally, the more immediate change you’ll see.
“There’s so much happening in our country, and I think there are competing priorities for where individuals put their time,” Erin Loos Cutraro, founder and CEO of She Should Run, tells Teen Vogue. “It’s so hard to break through and to increase the number of individuals that are engaged at the polls. My hope is that changes. I think that if we continue to see momentum, which we are, and [have] individuals stepping up and becoming more informed, and knowing that their voice matters — not only at their city council meeting and by running for office, but also at the ballot box —[it] will most definitely have a positive affect on overall voter turnout.”