Know Before You Vote: Municipal Elections

Welcome to our education series leading up to the November 5th election! In each article, we’ll feature a set of elected officials on this year’s ballots, and what to look for when researching candidates. Our second piece goes local, and looks at municipal races. In towns, boroughs, and cities across the country, you’ll have the opportunity to vote for your local government. Here’s a breakdown of the positions:

  • City / Town Council: City council members typically oversee local legislative matters, and manage major areas of operation, such as infrastructure, land management, and finance. Council members are elected to represent their geographic ward, and collaborate to improve their wards and the city or town as a whole. The exact structure and responsibilities of a council varies from each municipality. To find out, search for your local government’s webpage.
  • Mayor: A town or city mayor oversees the main local departments, including  the police, fire, education, housing and transportation departments. Responsibilities vary based on the local government structure, and size of the municipality. For example, electing the mayor of Chicago is different than a suburb or rural area in Illinois. The scope and complexity of responsibilities will differ based on the makeup of the municipality. Additionally, the structure of the local government asserts just how much responsibility is given to the mayor. These are the two main types:
    • Council – Weak Mayor: This represents a structure where the majority of authority is given to the city council. In this instance, the mayor serves a more ceremonial, community building role. Some municipalities have an Administrator appointed by the Council in place of a Mayor. In unincorporated areas, a Supervisor may play this role.
    • Council – Strong Mayor: This reflects the opposite: a structure where the city council oversees legislative matters, and the mayor remains responsible for administrative affairs. 
  • School Board: School boards are comprised of typically three, five, or seven community members who oversee the well-being of their local school district. Responsibilities include hiring a new superintendent, voting on and adopting new policies to help schools achieve their goals, and listening to feedback from guardians of students and local community members at school board meetings. In districts with teacher’s unions, the school board often manage the collective bargaining process. 
  • Judge of Elections: Each polling precinct has an elected judge of elections, or elections clerk, who manages the polling precinct each election. They are election officials responsible for ensuring proper voting at polling stations. On election day, they will sign in volunteer polling clerks, finalize the official vote count after polls close, and manage any issues which may arise.
  • County Commissioner: County commissions are comprised of anywhere between one, three, and five commissioners, and serve as the executive governing body in a county. Typical roles include management of county governmental services such as prisons, courts, public health oversight, property registration, building code enforcement, and public works such as road maintenance. In urbanized areas, the county commission may have less administrative control, whereas rural areas may depend on county commissions for the majority of administrative work. 

Looking for more information on each role? Check out Ballotpedia

All of these roles play a part in your local municipality. Your vote helps determine how certain functions of your town or city operate and change. 

What to look for when researching your candidate:

  • Prior Experience: What is their background relating to the role? What makes them qualified to serve your municipality?
  • Local Needs: The needs of a municipal system may be the most varied – every town, borough, and city has its own structure, culture, and specific need. In your day to day life, what aspects of local life feel most important to you? What aspects of your municipality are community members discussing? Do you feel they have importance as well? 
  • Positions and Stances: Has the candidate released statements regarding their positions on key matters pertaining to your town or city? If not, you can contact them asking for a statement!

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: How much time will this research take?

A: It will take some time. You’ll want to sit down for a bit and take a few notes. We don’t know your research style, but a full dive into municipal research could last about 20 minutes. Think about it this way: Now through the election, you can spend each week researching a different set of candidates. Taking 20 minutes a week to make a confident, informed decision sounds like time well spent. 

For more in-depth understanding, you might consider attending city council or school board meetings. This can be time-consuming, but these sessions are where many of the decisions that affect your life on a day-to-day level are made!


Q: How do I know who’s on the ballot?

A: Sources such as Ballotpedia and the League of Women Voters provide a snapshot of local, regional, and state races across the U.S.


Q: How do I find nonpartisan research?

A: The above sources sometimes link nonpartisan research. You can also try a good old Google Search. The range and volume of ballot races challenges voter engagement organizations to find ways to provide this information in elections to come.


Q: So I started my research and it’s actually a lot of fun! I love this. I want to share this with my friends and school so they can be informed too. Should I make my own guide?

A: Of course you should! That’s what we’re all about. Check out our resources on creating your own voter guide here. Strapped for time? See if your friends will help divvy up the work.


Stay tuned for our next article on Governor’s Races! 

1 thought on “Know Before You Vote: Municipal Elections”

  1. It was interesting when you talked about how your vote helps determine how your city or town operates. In addition to that, I would think that it would be a good idea to be careful when you are voting for your congress representative. A congress member represents your state when laws are being created and changed.

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