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The Elections You Don't Pay Attention To (But Should)

Photograph by Twenty20

The 2016 presidential election has a lot of Americans talking. And it should. The next POTUS will have a significant impact on the direction our country takes. Every voter should be thinking carefully about whom they will vote for and why.

But don't stop there. The simple fact is, your state and local government have far more power to impact your day-to-day life than the president. The executive, legislative and judicial branches exist at every level of government in our checks and balances system. Even the White House wants you to focus less on Washington and more on your city, county and state leaders.

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Yet the turnout for state and local elections is not only significantly lower than presidential ones, it has been declining for years and continues to do so. Recent research shows only 1 in 5 eligible voters shows up for mayoral elections, for example.

There are many compelling reasons why you should be paying as much attention, if not more, to elected officials close to home. It's also OK to admit you don't know what's going on or how to get involved. Here's a general overview of 5 offices that likely make up your local and state government. It's never too late to do some Googling, look up names and positions, and take a stance. Also, keep in mind, elections for these positions may be happening now, not in November, an inefficiency in voting that likely contributes to low voter turnouts (and that you could actually be a voice in changing—you just have to figure out how!)

1. City council

Chances are you've seen or read stories from your local news sources about city council meetings. The city council may have various names, but it is a form of representative government that exists at the local level. It acts as the legislative branch of the city government, as well as its policy-making body. Get to know yours. In many cities, you can watch board meetings online, but also set aside some time to attend one in person. By law, these bodies are required to post their agendas (most now do that online) and minutes (meaning, a summary) of previous meetings. Minutes list how each member voted on any issue. They're boring, but often you can scan through them to get the information you want or need.

Figure out how these elections work in your town or city.

2. Sheriff

A sheriff can be a county or city position and is generally elected. This person is the top law enforcement officer and has a significant impact on community relations. Given the tension seen across our country between citizens and law enforcement, this role has become even more important.

3. Judges

Whether judges are elected or appointed depends on where you live and the level of the judiciary. Judges play many roles: They interpret the law, assess the evidence presented and control how hearings and trials unfold in their courtrooms. Most important of all, judges are meant to be impartial decision-makers in the pursuit of justice, though many run campaigns and, therefore, raise money. Figure out how these elections work in your town or city. Candidates are usually required to disclose who they have received money from—important information when deciding what person or organizations may have influence over a particular candidate. Again, start by Googling. But you can also call the courthouse and start asking where you can find that specific information.

4. School board and superintendent

If you are a parent, this is a big one to pay attention to. Most of the decisions that directly impact the day-to-day of public schools in your area are made at the school board level. The school board is typically weighing the recommendations and requests from the Superintendent, who is the head of a school district. In some cases, the Superintendent is an elected position. In others, the superintendent is hired by the School Board. Together, they make decisions that directly impact families, but, ultimately, it is the elected school board who is ultimately responsible for the decisions. Which means it's up to voters to elect responsible, responsive and knowledgable members to sit on that board.

Your city or municipality has a website. Visit it. Find out how your local government is structured and which members are elected. And learn more about what those individuals stand for and are doing to impact your family.

Then move on to your state government.

5. State legislators

I will admit I didn't give my state legislature a great deal of thought before I became involved in grass roots efforts to have recess mandated for elementary school students. From that experience I have become dedicated to being more informed and involved in my state's elections.

If you don't know who represents you at the state level, it is easy to find out. You can also see how they have voted on issues that matter to you. You can track what bills are introduced in each legislative session and follow their progress. Every state government has its own website with this information.

What's really important is to make sure you are registered to vote.

These are just a few of the elected positions at the local and state levels. What's really important is to make sure you are registered to vote. If you aren't, get it done by the deadline. Again, juts Google your county and "register to vote" and you'll find the information somewhere.

All registered voters receive sample ballots to help them prepare for an election at any level. This usually provides the voter's polling place and hours and contains an image of what the actual ballot will look like, including candidates, questions and instructions for voting.

This is your opportunity to learn more about the names and issues you have the opportunity to vote on. It's never been easier. Candidates have their own websites. They have a staff that will answer your questions if you call. And you should.

But don't just take their word for it. Do you own research, again, Google them. Voting records are public. Candidates are often in the news. Learn more about what they have actually done, rather than relying on what they say they will.

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The Knight Foundation explains why elections other than the presidential ones are important.

"While every election is important in its own way, it's the local ones that have the most immediate impact on our lives. Local elections determine how our neighborhoods look and feel, whether and how our streets are kept clean and safe, how our roads and transit work, what it's like to have a job, start a business and have kids in the places we live. Local elections are also at the heart of how money is allocated and spent: Should we build a new stadium, continue funding a public library, support small businesses? If we care about our cities, we have to care about who gets elected and the issues on the ballot."

In order for our government to truly work for us, we must be informed and engaged. So get to know your elected officials. And most importantly, get out and vote! Every time.

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