In any election year, it’s no secret who’s running for major offices like the presidency, but candidates for local government positions may be more mysterious. Voting for local representatives is at least as important as voting for president, and some would argue that it is even more strategic.
Our communities are a microcosm of the country, which means we should care about who is sheriff, judge, and mayor as much as we are concerned with who is the president of the United States. After all, state senators and local congressional representatives are equally influential to the larger political mechanism, impacting everything from legalizing recreational marijuana to decisions on how to address climate change.
In this step-by-step guide, you’ll learn how to research local candidates, what to look for in a candidate’s political platform, and where you can uncover this crucial information.
With the battle for social equality in full force, there’s never been a better time to exercise your right to vote. And if you’ve ever tried researching candidates on Election Day, then you know how stressful it can be to wait until the last minute. Start researching your local candidates early so you can go to the polls (or mailbox) confidently armed with your most powerful political weapon: knowledge.
Step 1: Identify your options
Before you can assess the candidates, you need to know who they are. The government hosts a one-stop website for this information where you can find your state in the drop-down menu. Once you select your state, you will be able to:
- Register to vote if you are not yet registered
- Update your voter information or change your voter status
- Contact your supervisor of elections
- Find current election dates, locations, and times
- Learn which offices are up for election
- Identify who will be on the ballot
You should also be able to view the different party options in your state and will notice that there are many more beyond Republican and Democratic. There may be groups outside the traditional two-party system that better aligns with your values, such as Libertarian, Reform, and Green, to name just a few. Regardless of your political party affiliation, or if you have no affiliation, you have the choice to vote across party lines in general elections.
In other words, you can vote for a Democrat for governor, an Independent for district attorney, and a Republican for county commissioner if you so desire. Primary elections, in which pools of candidates are narrowed down to one, are different and you usually need to belong to a certain political party to vote in these.
Step 2: Find out where candidates stand on the issues
The issues you care about will vary depending on your location and the particular office up for election, but the most common issues to investigate typically fall into economic, environmental, and social categories. To understand where a candidate stands on each issue, seek out information from the following sources:
- The candidate’s campaign website where their stance should be laid out in a readable, bullet-point format
- Recordings of speeches, debates, and interviews
- Radio and television ads, many of which can be found on YouTube
- Non-partisan informational sites like Smart Voter if you live in California
Once you’re clear on each candidate’s position, it’s a good idea to research who they are inside and outside the political arena.
Step 3: Assess a candidate’s character and leadership style
Looking into a candidate’s character is a key way to gain insight into how they might lead if elected. A person’s background, whether it includes scandals or accolades, can reveal much about what they will do once in office and whether promises will be honored. A simple internet search and perusal of legitimate sources (such as established newspapers and magazines) is one easy way to unearth this information.
How an individual runs a campaign will also clue you into their character. Ask yourself these questions when reviewing political ads and campaign websites:
- Does the candidate use fear-mongering techniques or sensationalism to get your attention?
- Is the overall tone of the campaign positive or negative?
- Is the candidate hurling insults at opponents or offering constructive criticism and workable solutions?
- Is the candidate skirting the issues, or is their stance unambiguous?
- Is the candidate making pie-in-the-sky promises, or do their assertions sound realistic?
The answers to these questions can tell you a lot about the strength (or weakness) of a candidate’s character and leadership style.
Step 4: Make your decision and cast your vote
Once you’ve gathered and assessed the facts, you will be ready to make an informed decision about which candidates best represent your voice. If none of the candidates resonate with you, you do have the option of writing in the name of anyone you choose. Just be aware that most states will not count a write-in vote as valid, according to a 2016 article published in the Washington Post. Depending on your perspective, you could view a write-in vote as a wasted vote or a statement vote, but ultimately the choice is entirely up to you.
Make sure to check your voter registration status with your state or local elections office at least 60 days before Election Day. Know your options for voting early or casting an absentee ballot, particularly if you are worried about encountering long lines or crowds at your polling place.
If you end up voting in person on Election Day, make sure to bring a valid form of photo identification (like a state-issued driver’s license) as 35 states currently require an ID to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Many of these identification requirements were in existence but not strictly enforced until 2016, as reported by the independent news source ProPublica. Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are concerned that the enforcement of these laws amounts to voter oppression since low-income, minority voters are disproportionately affected.
Further resources for voters
If you want to find out not only who is going to be on your ballot but also what, this website has you covered. Getting a sample ballot will help you know in advance what special questions (a.k.a. ballot measures) are going to be on your ballot so you can be prepared to answer them. In 2018, for example, Floridians voted to prohibit greyhound racing, a once-popular “sport” that left countless dogs injured and abandoned. Similar questions pertaining to animal rights, school funding, and land preservation may appear on your state’s next ballot. Get your sample ballot here. (Pro tip: you don’t have to provide your email address to view the results, just your address.)
And since you’re on a cannabis website now, you might be interested in visiting Ballotpedia’s state-by-state breakdown of marijuana measures to learn what cannabis laws are up for consideration in your home state.
To really get into the nitty-gritty of your local elections, check out BallotReady. Visit the site, type in your home address, and view a gallery of your current elected officials — plus when they’re up for reelection. Stay informed here.
In addition to producing Pulitzer Prize-winning journalism, the nonprofit also provides resources for American voters. Punch in your zip code or home address to explore every bill your local representatives have ever voted on. You’ll also be privy to how often your representatives vote against their own party, what issues they prioritize, and how to contact them on the web or by phone. Start searching here.
Whether you live in a state that’s red, blue, or somewhere in between, your vote matters. It is both your Constitutional right and privilege to express what matters to you by casting your ballot. In the words of Martin Luther King Jr., “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
The information contained in this site is provided for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as medical or legal advice.