Voting is so much more than the presidential election. From how police engage with the community to whether public transportation is affordable, safe, and clean to whether affordable housing is being built, local elections shape our communities and impact our lives. Our state, municipal, and county-level elected officials make a wide range of decisions that affect your daily life. Leaving no power on the table means using your vote in every race in every election because it matters. There are thousands of state and local elections coming up this year. Do you know who is on your ballot?
We’ve compiled an index of some of the major elected positions in state and local government* and their functions to help you prepare to vote and become acquainted with how state and local government impacts your life and your community.
School board members have power to make decisions on school policy, budgets, programming, resource allocation, curriculum, and faculty tenure and can have a dramatic impact on issues of equity and quality of the education provided in your schools. School boards hire the superintendent and sometimes have firing power over teachers and staff. School Boards can also draw school districts and sometimes create entirely new separate or splinter districts. These school district “secessions” are a force behind school segregation.
Recently, school board meetings have become battlegrounds for debates over COVID-19 mask mandates and protocols and the truthful teaching of our nation’s history. Unprecedented numbers of mostly white parents are attending meetings to demand that school boards ban teaching the racial history of the US. This highly organized and well-funded effort has co-opted an academic legal theory known as “critical race theory,” which is being used as the target of this attack. These recent efforts to prohibit schools from teaching accurate history when it comes to race are part of a long American history of backlash in response to demands for racial justice. Check out our FAQ page to learn the truth about Critical Race Theory and efforts to ban knowledge and understanding of racial history by our youth.
While the role of a sheriff’s office varies considerably from state to state and even from county to county, sheriffs typically wield enormous power with little oversight. As elected officials, sheriffs should be accountable to their voters. Sheriffs can set arrest priorities, drive criminal investigations, execute search warrants, conduct asset forfeitures, establish use of force policies, and determine cooperation with ICE. Crucially, sheriffs often run local jails.
They control jail policies, food, physical conditions, and the provision of mental and medical healthcare services for persons incarcerated. Some jurisdictions do not even require Sheriffs to have law enforcement experience or training, allowing anyone to be elected sheriff. Sheriff elections usually occur every four years, but this can vary by jurisdiction. They are typically elected without term limits and with few campaign finance regulatory restraints.
Prosecutors have discretion to determine whether a person is charged with a felony or misdemeanor and whether juveniles are treated as adults. They make recommendations on bail and pretrial detention, decide what evidence is shared with defendants, set the terms of plea bargains, and make recommendations on the severity of sentences. Their policies are linked to mass incarceration and racial disparities in criminal justice.
Prosecutors typically do not have term limits and little campaign financing regulations. Pressure from the public to make fast arrests and convictions or risk re-election can lead to abuses of power and misconduct that often go unchecked. Prosecutors are often considered the most important figures in the criminal justice system based on their broad discretion and the lack of oversight. Given the power that they have in the criminal legal system, voting on who will be the prosecutor in your city or county is a crucial way to make change.
Coroners are elected officials who oversee death investigations and autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death. In many jurisdictions, anyone can run for coroner, with or without a medical degree or experience. Jurisdictions that have elected coroners hire Medical Examiners who are required to have medical degrees. In some jurisdictions, the opinion and determination made by the Medical Examiner, the forensic pathologist who conducts the autopsies, can be overruled by the elected coroner, who may have no medical knowledge.
Coroners typically do not have term limits and operate with little oversight. Who handles death investigations varies by state and jurisdiction. About half of all jurisdictions appoint a Medical Examiner and Forensic Pathologists who are required to have a medical degree and experience, while the rest elect a Coroner.
Local trial courts are where most criminal and civil cases are handled. These courts can be separated into divisions such as family, criminal, landlord/tenant, or general civil courts depending on the jurisdiction. In local trial court, judges and/or juries are charged with making a decision on a cased based on the evidence presented. Local judges are either elected or appointed depending on the state and jurisdiction. In 26 states, all local judges are elected, while 11 other states only elect some local judges. Eight states use partisan elections while 18 states use nonpartisan elections. Find out more about how local judges are selected in your state and jurisdiction here.
Sometimes called a Town Council or Board of Aldermen, a City Council acts as the legislative body of their municipality. The individual members of the Council are elected to office and tasked with representing their constituents. They have the power to review and approve the city budget, pass ordinances and resolutions, including criminal and civil laws and regulations, regulate public health and safety, establish tax rates, regulate land use through zoning laws, and represent the city at the state and federal level.
The election system for city councils varies by jurisdiction. In some cities, council members are elected based on wards or districts where voters live, which means you would only vote for the council member who will represent your district. Other cities elect their city councils using an at-large voting system where all voters citywide cast all their ballots for candidates in the jurisdiction and the candidates who receive the most votes win seats on the city council.
At-large voting systems are often discriminatory as they can prevent voters of color from electing candidates of their choice in cities that are majority white with racially polarized voting, as their votes can be drowned out by the votes of majority white voters who often do not support the candidates preferred by Black voters. Some cities use a mix of the two voting systems. Over three-quarters of all municipalities have a non-partisan election system, while the rest have a partisan election system. Check your local city or town website to find out more about how your city council is elected.
Mayors have varying levels of power and administrative authority depending on city’s government. A mayor’s duties often include managing and preparing the city budget, overseeing daily operations, appointing advisory boards or commissions, enforcing legislation, and more. Mayors oversee the city’s main departments, including police, fire, education, housing, health, and sanitation. Crucially, mayors often appoint department heads who set policies and manage budgets. Mayors often have final authority over fiscal issues and budgetary concerns.
Cities are often categorized as having “weak” or “strong” mayors, depending on the scope of the mayor and city council’s authority. In mayor-council governments, mayors have centralized executive authority and are generally referred to as “strong” mayors. Mayors are elected by the city and generally have greater legal authority and veto power. Mayors in mayor-council governments manage the city’s day-to-day operations.By contrast, in council-manager governments, the mayor’s role is often ceremonial and the city council has greater authority. Mayors in council-manager governments are often elected by the city council and lack special legislative powers. These are generally referred to as “weak” mayors.
The County Board of Supervisors, also referred to as County Commissioners, County Executives, or Freeholders in some jurisdictions, oversee the operation of the county. Among many other things, they review, adjust, and adopt the county budget, set and levy taxes, adopt ordinances for the enforcement of county-wide actions, and represent county issues in front of state and federal legislative bodies. Crucially, counties are also responsible for registering voters and administrating elections.
Some counties are responsible for the administration of social services programs like Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programs (SNAP), re-entry programs, environmental programs, and other state-mandated programs. Counties often determine which organizations to grant contracts to provide these services. Other county-level elected officials can include clerk, supervisor of elections, recorder, tax assessor, among others.
*Note while most states have county-level government– in Louisiana, they are “parishes” and in Alaska, they are “boroughs. Connecticut and Rhode Island don’t have functioning county governments.
Planning and Zoning Commissions can be appointed or elected. They are a bodies that recommend the boundaries of zoning districts and regulations to be enforced to the town or city council. Their recommendations can decide who gets a permit to build in your neighborhood, why businesses are in one area and parks are in another, how your communities are zoned, and the availability and location of affordable housing in your town or county, which can drive segregation via the geographic concentration of housing on the basis of race and poverty.
Local governments usually administer water supply, sewage treatment, garbage disposal, recycling programs, and other non-optional environmental services, including a playing a key role in setting the rates for these essential public services. Local governments also often regulate and manage utilities. In many jurisdictions, these environmental services are managed Public Works Commissions or Boards. Others have positions and boards dedicated to specific functions like Soil and Water Commissions, Conservation Boards, Water Boards, and others. Many people struggle to pay for these services, which can lead to service cutoffs and property foreclosures.
A City Comptroller essentially acts as a city’s accountant or chief financial officer. They audit city agencies, approve city contracts, and invest the municipal pension funds. In some jurisdictions, they also act as the external auditor for the government budget. In New York and other jurisdictions that have comptrollers, their role acts as a checks and balances system for the mayor and city council.
In Virginia, the Commissioner of Revenue is responsible for implementing and administering the tax policies set by the city’s governing body. They determine what is taxable within the locality of the Commonwealth and are responsible for state tax returns. They have the power to summon taxpayers, issue statutory assessments, audit taxpayer returns, and file civil and criminal proceedings against taxpayers for not filing tax returns or providing information.
Judges have incredible power in interpreting and applying the law and in critical decisions in the criminal legal system, such as in accepting plea bargains, sentencing, setting bail and determining pretrial incarceration. In most states, the Supreme Court is the state’s highest level court, and their decisions are binding and final on matters involving state laws.
Courts of Appeals are commonly under the state Supreme Court and their decisions can be reviewed by the state Supreme Court. Lower state courts are usually separated into divisions including criminal court, probate court involving wills and estates, contract and tort cases, juvenile court, and family court, based on the type of cases they handle. Some states have partisan elections for judges while others have nonpartisan elections or retention votes. You can review nonpartisan sources of judge evaluations such as state, city or county bar associations, and nonpartisan candidate scorecards to help you make decisions in judicial elections.
Sometimes called the Superintendent of Public Instruction or Education Commissioner, the State Superintendent leads the State Board of Education and has the power to approve or disapprove school budgets, resources, educational programming, and curriculum, superseding decisions made by local district school boards. The State Board of Education determines and regulates the curriculum of all school and establishes standards for assessments. They also are responsible for the accreditation and licensing of teachers across the state. In many states, the State Board of Education crucially appoints the textbook review panels that determine what students are taught and what teachers are allowed to teach.
Who runs elections varies from state to state, but in the majority of states the elected Secretary of State is the chief election official. The Secretary of State is responsible for maintaining official election results and administering elections. They also work in conjunction with local election officials to provide training, maintain the voter registration database, and offer guidance. The Secretary of State is also responsible for certifying the state’s election results.
Besides overseeing elections, the Secretary of State’s duties are largely administrative. They maintain state records, including registering businesses, recording official acts by the governor, commissioning and regulating notaries public, and certifying official documents.
In most states, the Attorney General is the top legal advisor and law enforcement official in the state government. In most states, the Attorney General is elected. They represent the state and state agencies in legal disputes and provide legal advice to state agencies and the legislature. The Attorney General often has significant influence over the state’s law enforcement agencies.
The Attorney General often works with the state legislature to propose and develop legislation and policies. They often work with federal agencies or local law enforcement on larger investigations. In many states, the Attorney General can step in and intervene if they can prove that a local district attorney did not pursue a case they should have. The Attorney General also represents the state when it is sued and can represent state agencies.
The Governor is the chief executive of the state. Governors implement state laws, and oversee the operation of the state. They pursue policies and programs with the assistance of department and agency leaders. Governors have broad authority to appoint officials to serve in the executive branch. They have veto power over budgets and state bills passed by the legislature. In some states, the governor has the power to commute sentences or offer clemency.
Sometimes called the controller, the state comptroller is an elected or appointed official who oversees the state budget and investments, collects taxes for state programs, audits state finances, manages pension funds, and manages disaster preparation. Their responsibilities vary from state to state but typically comptrollers function as the state’s chief financial officer Comptrollers also often oversee fraud investigations and complaints made by the public.
In some states, the comptroller shares duties with the state treasurer or auditor. Generally, auditors manage the state’s accounting, conduct internal financial audits, and act as a watchdog over other state agencies. Treasurers usually oversee the state’s financial decisions but are less involved in the day-to-day bookkeeping.Some states have all three financial officers, while others have combined the responsibilities of the comptroller, auditor, and treasurer.
Public Service Commissioners generally regulate the state’s electric, gas, steam, broadband, and water utilities. They are appointed or elected. They determine rates for services, manage energy policy, and grant contracts. In some states, Public Service Commissioners regulate oil and gas industries and manage fossil fuel infrastructure projects, including pipelines. The work of Public Service Commissioners often overlaps with state environmental agencies, including the Natural Resource Commissioners and Land Commissioners.
The title and duties of an Agriculture Commissioner vary state to state, but their role generally encompasses overseeing the regulation of agriculture in their state. The have substantial power in regulating the animal industry and food safety and meat inspection. They typically work with the State Assemblies and government to promote the enactment of legislation related to agriculture.
Prepared to Vote (PTV) engages volunteers and equips voters in key states with the information needed to protect voting rights and support Black political participation. Voting Rights Defender (VRD) project engages voters and local community partners to monitor, track, and respond to voter suppression efforts in our targeted jurisdictions to protect the right to vote.
Democracy Defended tracks voter suppression in key states and offers recommendations for curbing attacks on the right to vote. The report captures barriers faced by Black voters in key states and solutions for policymakers, election administrators, and community members to ensure fair access to the vote in future elections.
The current political landscape has understandably left some individuals, especially young people and people of color, feeling exhausted, disenchanted, and frustrated. But, in spite of this frustration, it’s critical that you vote in every election.