If we learned anything from watching helplessly as our city and state officials fought the federal government on just about every issue in 2020, it should be that local elections are very important. But it can be hard to determine who and what deserve your vote when the media are focused on the presidential and federal level. Fortunately, the local voting information you need is out there — you may just need some help finding it. Grab yourself a cold brew and get ready to make a difference.
How to Be Informed About Local Elections
Step #1: Make Sure You Can Vote
The first step to becoming an informed local voter is becoming, well, a local voter. That means you need to register. If you need help, I recommend heading over to How to Vote in Every State, a YouTube channel that can quickly and effectively guide you through the process. They detail the registration process in your state, can help you get your hands on an absentee or provisional ballot and let you know what to expect from upcoming elections in the area.
Step #2: Research Local Candidates and Issues
You see signs around your neighborhood and hear the occasional political ad on your local radio station, but none of that tells you where your local candidates stand on important issues in your community. Your city or state may provide a voter guide, but only a masochist would read through hundreds of pages of dry legal talk. Fortunately, there are loads of tools that can help you learn more about your local election candidates and measures. Here are some good ones:
The U.S. Vote Foundation. The U.S. Vote Foundation is a good first stop. They can help you register, learn more about your local election and contact your local election office. Remember, unlike federal officials, local candidates are much more accessible. They may very well pick up the phone and entertain your questions, so if you feel so inclined, use the U.S. Vote Foundation to give them a ring. (Vote.org is helpful for basic voter information, too.)
Vote Smart. Vote Smart focuses primarily on presidential and congressional candidates, so it may not be ultra local. However, it can be super useful: You select issues that matter to you, answer a few questions about your stance on them, and Vote Smart will spit out information on what the candidates say and what independent research says. It essentially matches you with candidates who hold your same views.
OpenSecrets. If you really want to know where a politician stands on something, following their money trail can be infinitely telling, and OpenSecrets does a good job of that. It has a ton of information on federal candidates, but it also peeks into the money behind local campaigns. OpenSecrets also has a handy internet extension called Greenhouse, which provides financial background pop-ups for candidates whenever you read about them online.
Ballotpedia. Ballotpedia is a great tool for navigating your ballot, local or otherwise. Punch in your address, select an upcoming election and boom: Now you have information about literally everything on your ballot. It explains measures, candidates, arguments for and against them — everything you need to know. (BallotReady provides a similar service.)
Vote411. Similar to Ballotpedia, Vote411 allows you to print out their sample ballots and take them with you to use as a guide if you vote in-person.
If your local paper puts together a voter guide and you generally agree with what they have to say, sure, you can use that to fill out your ballot. But if you want to be a more active voter, taking the time to run that voter guide against one of these tools can make a big difference. You may find that you stray away from your local paper in some cases.
Step #3: Have a Ballot Chat
You could stop at step #2 and be an incredibly informed local voter. But if you want that gold star, organizing a Zoom chat to discuss your ballot with friends can be incredibly insightful. Maybe have each person research a different issue or candidate, and come prepared to share their thoughts. You may learn something new, or you may break up your entire friend group. But if you can manage to keep things civil, nothing beats the information you can gain by bringing different minds together.
Now get out there and vote. Your community needs you.