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9 Ways to Learn About State and Local Elections

Learn where to go to bone up on candidates and ballot issues that directly impact your community.

Topics: News Media

The first time voting for president is a thrilling rite of passage. But you know what matters just as much in 2020? The races happening in your city and state. This year every member of the U.S. House of Representatives is up for election, as are some senators. Your state may be holding elections for governor and state representatives, plus local city races, judges' races, county races, and more. And don't forget ballot measures or propositions—these measures could directly affect your life. Whether you're a Californian voting on whether to allow cash bail, a Floridian voting on raising the minimum wage, or a New Jersey voter deciding whether to legalize marijuana, these tips will help you make informed choices on Election Day.

The long list of state and local elections may seem overwhelming, but we're here to help. Here are nine ways to find the information you need to make decisions that affect your local community. (And if you can only focus on one thing on this list, you're still ahead of the game!)

Figure out where you stand. The nonpartisan organization Vote Smart has designed a quiz to ask about your positions on a variety of issues to help you find your "political soulmate," or the representative who best aligns with your views. Find the quiz here.

  • Check out VotoLatino to learn how issues directly impact the Latinx community.
  • Also use That's Bull, which fact-checks candidates.
  • Political Galaxy helps you see anything a politician might have said on a particular issue.

Use Ballotpedia. This website really is like an encyclopedia for all things election-related. You can look up a particular candidate and see who's endorsed them, which commercials the candidate has run, and pro and con arguments around ballot measures.

Check the votes. See how your current representatives have voted on past issues, to decide whether you agree with them or want to vote for their opponents.

  • Use the nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica's Represent feature, which tracks everything your Congressional representatives have ever voted on.
  • For local politicians, you may have to make a trip to the public records archive at the City Clerk's office to see how council members have voted on issues in the past. (Some cities have these online, and your local paper's website may have past articles about council member's voting records.)

Follow the money. See who has funded candidate's campaigns and who their biggest donors are.

  • Use the Donor Lookup feature on the website OpenSecrets.org to search for individuals—maybe a major businessperson or developer in your area—to see which candidates they've funded.
  • You can also use it to look at federal candidates to see who's contributed to their campaigns.
  • Or use the website FollowtheMoney.org to do in-depth research on who's funding candidates.
  • For local races, head to your city clerk's office, visit their website, or check out local papers for reporting on candidate financing.

Check your local party for endorsements. Whichever political party you align with—Democrat, Republican, Libertarian, Green, American Independent—or whether you're curious about coalitions, which unite disparate parties under an umbrella philosophy, you can usually find a local chapter that publishes its endorsements. You don't have to follow their recommendations on everything, but you can use their list as a guide and then do your own research.

Go to a local debate. Many neighborhood councils and organizations will host debates among candidates for city council or other local offices. It can really clarify how you feel about a set of candidates to hear them explain their ideas right in front of you, and you can see how they handle pressure and challenges from the public.

  • Contact the campaigns or check their websites to get a schedule of upcoming debates.

Sign up for campaign emails. Yes, we all want to declutter our inboxes, and getting on the mailing list of a bunch of campaigns probably sounds like the last thing you want to do. But getting emails from local candidates running in your area is one of the easiest ways to stay up to date on where candidates stand on issues. See which candidates have Facebook or Instagram accounts, too.

Fact-check campaign mailers. In local races, candidates often spend a lot of money on campaign mailers that fill up your mailboxes. These mailers can come from the campaigns themselves or from outside groups, but they often contain misleading information. It's probably safest to ignore these ads, or check local media to see if they've fact-checked any of the mailers.

  • If you want to stop the mailers from coming, vote early by mail. Campaigns can see when you've voted (it's public record whether someone has voted in an election or not), and once you've mailed in your ballot, they won't waste any more money on sending you things in the mail.

Use local media. If you need help wading through all the money, endorsements, and arguments for and against ballot measures, check your local newspaper and public media radio or TV station.

  • Papers often do endorsements on local candidates, so check those to see if you agree with them.
  • Local media stations usually have all the local election information on their websites.

For even more resources to help navigate election season, visit our Young Voter's Guide to Social Media and the News.

Claire Trageser
Claire is a journalist who contributes to a variety of outlets, including Parents, Marie Claire, Runner's World, and NPR. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of California at Berkeley and now lives in San Diego, where she works for the NPR affiliate KPBS. She has covered multiple local and national elections, and helps San Diego voters get information on their local candidates and ballot measures. After her son was born two years ago, Claire has begun thinking and writing more about parenting issues. In her very limited free time, Claire goes running and walks her dog.