Voter participation in local elections is often eclipsed by that of federal and presidential elections. However, local politics have a distinct and often outsize effect on the experiences of people with disabilities and others within their communities. These elections play a role in ensuring safety in times of disaster and crisis. For example, many decisions regarding the response to the COVID-19 pandemic—from mandatory mask requirements to school reopening plans—have been made at the local and state level.
Despite this, turnout for local elections is sparse: Only 27 percent of eligible voters participate in local elections nationwide. This means that relatively few people in each state are voting on positions such as those in state legislatures—which include district senators and representatives, who function similarly to members of Congress at the federal level—as well as governors and mayors. Voters may also overlook lower-level elected officials who work more directly with the community—such as school boards, judges, district attorneys, and city council members—and may be key to making a community more accessible. In addition, there are a number of officials who are not elected directly but are appointed to key positions. That’s why it is important to know which specific local officials these appointees are accountable to, because understanding these connections can help voters make their voices heard.
This column provides a list of 10 offices that are up for election in cities and states across the country—in 2020 and in future elections—and why it is important to know who these elected officials are and how they can affect local communities.
Resources on state and local elections and officials
Incumbent state senators and representatives: Open States contains a list of current state senators and representatives.
Gubernatorial elections: Ballotpedia provides a list of the states that are voting to elect a governor in 2020.
Incumbent and upcoming elections for state attorneys general: USA.gov lists all state attorneys general as well as their opinions on court rulings and current investigations their offices are conducting in each state or territory. The State AG Report contains a tracker for attorneys general elections for states that hold them as well as weekly updates on how attorneys general across the country are affecting the political landscape.
Court cases and judges: Cases seen in open court are public record, and some jurisdictions may provide information on these cases online. Case history, judges’ opinions, and other official documents may also be available at law libraries and courthouses. Some states provide easy-to-access information on judicial candidates through their election websites and their commission on judicial performance.
Auditors: Information on auditors might be difficult to find, but state websites—such as this site for Delaware’s auditor—often have information about the current auditor and investigations they may have spearheaded during their tenure.
Disabled candidates: The National Council on Independent Living keeps a list of disabled candidates who are running for office.
Governors, mayors, and state attorneys general
Governors are the heads of states and territories in the United States. They are elected to manage the state or territory through making appointments, approving budgets and legislation, and declaring and responding to emergencies, among other responsibilities. Details on gubernatorial powers, term limits, and qualifications vary by state, depending on the state constitution. In most states, governors are elected to four-year terms and may serve consecutive terms. In 2020, there are a total of 13 gubernatorial races in the United States and its territories.
Mayors operate at a more local level as the heads of cities. Depending on the jurisdiction, mayors may act as a type of city CEO with broad authority over city administration. In other places, mayors have less individual authoritative power and are more beholden to the will of the city council, discussed below. In the United States, governors and mayors make lasting decisions about how cities and states function and what initiatives and offices are funded.
State attorneys general (AGs) are the chief legal enforcement officials for state and territorial governments, as well as Washington, D.C., and are meant to be the “people’s lawyers.” Most attorneys general are elected to their positions; however, several states have AGs who are appointed by their governors. Their rulings on matters directly influence legal enforcement in a state. The AG is often the head of the state department of justice, which is responsible for enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
City council members
City council members are political officers who perform roles such as adopting the city budget, writing and voting on city legislation, overseeing city projects and planning, and determining land use. The head of the city council is often the mayor. The decisions members make determine how the city runs and where and how money is spent on a regular basis. A city council might, for example, vote on creating an accessibility committee with disabled community members who can provide input on architectural and developmental changes to the city, or it might be responsible for approving a large loan for affordable housing. Currently, city councils across the country are making decisions on issues related to the coronavirus, such as mask mandates and outdoor restaurant plans, both of which may create access issues.
While it may be easy to overlook the local city council, there are often many opportunities for residents to get face time with city representatives. City council meetings are often open to the public and may present an opportunity to inform local representatives about the issues facing the disability community. Interacting with the city council is particularly effective if the city’s mayor has limited authoritative power.
Judges and district attorneys
Voters across the country have an often-overlooked influence on the criminal justice system. In some states, voters can elect district attorneys and judges in a mix of nonpartisan and partisan races ranging from smaller court appointments—such as for trial courts—to appointments to the state’s Supreme Court. While judges may not be at the forefront of conversations during election season, they can have significant impact on people’s daily lives. Judges may rule on a variety of cases, ranging from election extensions to ADA violations.
District attorneys (DAs) are responsible for the prosecutor’s office and for prosecuting criminal cases, offering plea bargains, and other enforcement measures. DAs shape the state’s long-term application of the law to those accused of crimes. People with disabilities are 2 1/2 times more likely to be victims of a crime than the general population and thus might have a keen interest in how these officials function.
Conversations about policing, police brutality, and overhauls to the justice system have raised important questions in cities and towns across the United States. The disability community is overrepresented in carceral settings, including prisons and jails, at 32 percent and 40 percent, respectively, and they account for an estimated 30 to 50 percent of police killings.
Upcoming elections are a potential way for voters to voice their priorities and effect change in this area, as many officials in the criminal justice apparatus are directly elected or appointed by an elected official such as the mayor. Additionally, decisions such as the building of new jails are often put up to a local vote.
Sheriffs’ positions can be elected or appointed, depending on the state, and while not all states have local-level sheriffs, a majority do. Sheriffs’ powers vary by state, but generally, they enforce laws, investigate crimes, and oversee jails and those incarcerated within. They may serve in their positions for many years, either because the community approves of their work, they face few opponents during reelection, or people don’t know to vote any other way. For example, Sheriff Dwight E. Radcliff of Pickaway County, Ohio, was sheriff for nearly 50 years—estimated to be the longest-serving sheriff in the United States. His father served in the same position for 30 years before him, meaning the Radcliff family has been in the county’s sheriff position for almost 100 years.
The education of children is important to the future of the United States. Locally, many school boards have appointed or elected members. School board responsibilities may vary by state but often include managing a budget, setting curricula, and negotiating contracts.
The purview of school boards also includes issues related to special education, such as guidelines on seclusion and restraint, which is the practice of isolating or physically restraining students—often students with disabilities. A school board may also determine discipline for teachers who take actions, while the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights can conduct investigations involving school boards and disability discrimination.
County commissioners or boards are composed of officials elected to operate the county both administratively and legislatively. They are also responsible for county services, parks, and prisons. Like mayors and governors, some counties also have commissions on disability and county ADA coordinators who are not elected but work with the elected commissioners.
Forty-eight states, Washington, D.C., and several U.S. territories currently have appointed or elected auditors. Auditors may be part of a state’s executive or legislative branch—or in the case of eight states, both branches. They are responsible for state finances as well as potential internal audits of state agencies and programs that people with disabilities may use.
There are far more areas of civic engagement than just voting for president, and this column provides additional information and resources on local and state elections for voters. These offices may show up on the ballot in presidential and nonpresidential election years, as elections happen every year all over the country. Individuals who are elected to these positions are responsible for important areas of people’s day-to-day lives, including people with disabilities and their communities.
Beyond this basic overview of voting actions around state and local politics, other options for civic engagement exist, such as running for office, supporting a campaign, and/or attending public meetings. These types of civic participation can get disabled people closer to the table where decisions are made, which has become more necessary than ever as communities respond to the many public health and safety crises currently affecting the United States.
Valerie Novack is a nonresident fellow with the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress.
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.