In general, when thinking about political campaigns, people are mainly thinking about the general election. The public usually has high awareness of the strategies attached to winning the general election, such as persuading swing voters or running large-scale partisan turnout...
Running for local office offers a great way to kick off your political career. While not everyone starts their career with a local office, campaigns for local political offices tend to be much smaller than state and federal campaigns. As a first-time candidate, then, doing so can help you build a foundation you can use for bigger campaigns down the road.
Not to mention, the campaign budgets required for local elections tend to be more manageable than when running for state or federal office, which is great if you don’t have a strong network of potential donors and are looking to start building a support base.
Running a successful local campaign can raise your profile and serve as a good launching pad for a future run for higher office. But even if you don’t plan on running for a different office later on, running for a local office can be a great way to help shape your community.
At the same time, running for a local office can be uniquely challenging for a few reasons:
- It’s often difficult to determine what offices are up for election.
- Local election schedules can vary compared to state or federal elections.
- Voters aren’t as engaged in local politics as they are in state or federal elections.
This guide is meant to help overcome those challenges and demystify some of the ins and outs of local government. We’ll walk through how to find what local offices to run for, who already holds the offices, and how to find election schedules for local elections.
Let’s get started!
What is local government?
Local government is the cornerstone of how cities/towns, utilities, schools, and counties ultimately function and operate. Serving in these local political offices allows you to directly impact your community.
There are four types of local government:
- School districts
- Special districts
- Municipalities (cities, villages, towns)
Local governments oversee many areas, including public health, safety, wellbeing, administrative aspects of government, and more.
So what exactly do these branches of government do? Let’s dig into the responsibilities for each type of local government:
- City (or municipal) governments ensure that cities have fire and police departments. They provide and maintain utilities (e.g., sewers and water). They also maintain parks, roads, streetlights, and so on. In many places, the city hall or town office is where residents pay vehicle registration fees. Residents pay property taxes directly to the town or city as well. In addition, city governments develop plans for economic development and other area improvements.
- County governments can oversee things like police and fire department services. Additional functions of county government include managing courthouses and autopsies. County offices are also responsible for managing birth, marriage, and death records and for overseeing voter registration and election results. Finally, this type of government will oversee infrastructure development and management (e.g., building roads, maintaining bridges, etc.).
- School districts oversee the operations of local public schools. The districts not only ensure schools receive funding and equipment, but also keep schools aligned with academic goals and help curb in-school social issues (e.g., food insecurity and bullying). School districts may even oversee these functions in multiple towns to accommodate rural areas or small towns without enough of a population to sustain their own districts.
- Special districts oversee one specific service. For example, the parks aren’t managed by the same districts that manage roads. These districts provide ongoing maintenance for services (e.g., water, waste disposal, cemetery management, agriculture, etc.).
With these local government roles in mind, you’re ready to start narrowing down what office you’ll run for.
What local offices can I run for?
Finding what local offices to run for can be tricky because the types of offices available vary from state to state, often even from city to city. For example, a small, rural town could either have a town council or consolidate the town’s government with a nearby city or town.
To add to the confusion, not all local government positions are elected. Some are appointed elected officials. For example, most city council positions are elected offices, including the town mayor. This council then typically chooses qualified people and appoints them to other government roles (e.g., city manager, police chief, city planners, etc.).
Let’s review several ways that you can determine what local political office to run for.
- When are the next elections?
One of the best ways to find out what offices are up for election is checking with your local government’s website.
For example, if you’re running for office in California, visit the Secretary of State website to find an election schedule arranged by county. Below, you’ll find a screenshot of the website showing how the information is arranged.
The red boxes in the image highlight a couple examples of upcoming local elections. On the site, you can click on the county’s name to visit the county election website. There, you can find a list of candidates, which is helpful information when deciding what office to run for (we’ll discuss this more in a later section). You’ll also find voting information, ballot information, election dates, and election results.
Some websites aren’t as helpful, though. In the screenshot below, you’ll see that New York’s Election Board website has information about upcoming election dates—which is awesome, of course, but it’s unclear what offices are up for election in 2021. The 2021 political calendar offers information about important deadlines and election dates. There isn’t, however, any discussion about what’s on the ballot or what offices are being elected.
When encountering this type of obstacle, try looking on websites like Ballotpedia for more specific information. Below, you’ll find a table from Ballotpedia showing what local offices are up for election in New York in 2021.
The chart above shows that elections for school boards, city governments, and ballot measures all appear in the 2021 election cycle.
There’s one limitation with this approach to finding local political offices to run for: you’ll tend to find information for only the next year or two. For practical reasons, election schedules aren’t set very far in advance.
The information you’ll uncover by looking at the types of sites showcased above is most useful if you’re in the earliest stages of planning a run for local office. Looking for election schedules will, for instance, help you map out the makeup of your local government. Most local government terms are 2–4 years long, giving you ample time to establish a solid plan for a campaign.
Another way to help you determine what office to campaign for is finding out who’s already in office.
- Who are my elected officials?
When you’re running for a local office, knowing who the incumbent is tells you who you would potentially run against or replace. This information can help you gauge the competitiveness of the seat. For example, an incumbent seeking a different office won’t put up a fight for their current seat, but an open seat might mean a more competitive primary election.
Local government officials can sometimes be hard to find, simply because local offices have lower profiles than state or federal offices. But you can find directories in a few places.
Cities themselves often have websites and directories with local offices listed on them. Even smaller towns usually have some contact information available. Look at the image below to see an example of how even small towns can have detailed directories to aid in your research.
With the website pictured, you can use the Government tab to find the town officials and links to all the boards and committees active in the town.
Directories sometimes even provide the dates for the end of current local officials’ terms. Below is a screenshot from a town website showing the current elected officials, their phone numbers (censored), their email addresses (censored), and their term-end dates.
The information in the image, in this instance, gives you the election dates that will take place outside of the year or two window that local election calendars offer.
You can also find directories on county websites. Below is a screenshot of the Marion County website in Oregon.
The Departments tab leads to all the different department pages, which contain information about the personnel from each department. For example, if you click on the Board of Commissions link, you’ll find contact information for everyone on the board.
There’s one last approach to finding your elected officials: USA.gov has directories for federal, state, and local elected officials, as the image below shows.
The image above shows that you can search for your local officials by city, county, and town. Clicking on the Contact Elected Officials link takes you to a page where you pick your state. If you were running for office in Texas, you would pick Texas from the dropdown menu, hit search, and find yourself on the page pictured below.
Taking an approach like this to identify the incumbent officials in your state might be more efficient than searching each local website individually, especially in areas where towns and villages pool their governments. Elected officials in such areas wouldn’t be organized by town or county. In such circumstances, the website pictured above would allow you to search by region, name, and title, allowing you to get a better idea of who’s active in your local government.
Plus, once you narrow the search area, the search results will list every elected official in that area. For example, if you were searching for elected officials in Dallas, TX, here’s what you’d find:
(Note, the site actually lists more than shown in the image above.)
Using USA.gov is an efficient way to gather both a complete list of potential offices to run for and the incumbents in those positions. Clicking on officials’ names also leads you to their contact information.
All of that information is great to get your research started, but it’s not enough to simply identify your elected officials and identify when the next elections will occur.
What other research should I do?
To really get an idea of how your local government runs, you have to get involved—and you don’t need to hold an office to get started. Getting involved can benefit you before you’re a local office candidate in a few ways:
- You can learn about what’s already happening in your local government. For example, knowing what plans the city is currently working on can help shape your campaign platform.
- You can identify the key players, their plans, and what kind of support they have.
- You can start making a name for yourself as someone with serious interest in local politics. Running a campaign requires support, and getting to know the incumbents within your party could help secure endorsements later on.
To help complete your research, turn to city websites. Look at the screenshot on the right to see the menu bar from the Mount Pleasant, Michigan city website.
This menu bar links to information about the type of government in the city (council-manager). You can also find master plans for the city and its parks.
The Keep Informed tab leads you to information about radio, TV, and newsletters that you can use to tap into local government operations.
You can also find information on ordinances and maps.
In just this one section, you have many ways to learn about what’s already happening in your local government. Researching these topics will lead you toward the areas that will allow you, your talents, and your vision to make the biggest impact. In other words, this research can help you zero in on the specific office to run for.
Mount Pleasant’s website also offers links (not pictured here) to explore the city departments, boards, and commissions. There’s a Directories tab that allows you to search for officials by facility, department, or social media platform as well.
While the approach might seem arduous, local governments vary in structure and organization, and you’ll need a deep understanding of the system before knowing which office is best for you.
Plus, going to town meetings and community events is a great way to start making the necessary introductions you’ll need to build a supportive base. You can even seek out people in hired or appointed local government positions, which will help you build a stronger peer network.
Ready to get started?
Now that you know how to navigate your local government, you’re ready to dive in and find your footing. Good luck!