Amidst the state and federal elections going on this year, local elections can fall by the wayside both with media attention, and also on our own ballots. As we enter this year’s election season, here is a comprehensive guide of the local positions up for election in California, and what they mean in our day-to-day lives.
The Presidential Primary Election is occurring on March 5th, 2024, a day sometimes referred to as “Super Tuesday.” California uses a blanket primary system, which means that all candidates will appear on the same ballot, regardless of party affiliation. The top two vote-getters will proceed to the general election ballot. A write-in candidate can only move into the general election if the candidate is one of the top two vote-getters in the primary election. This is a form of an open primary, which allows voters to vote for any candidate, regardless of the voter or the candidate’s party affiliation. On the same ballot will be candidates for state and local positions. Some local elections will occur on Super Tuesday, and others will occur on election day in November.
Everything not covered by the federal government falls to the state governments, and then further between local governments. Unlike state governments, which are often modeled pretty closely on the federal government, local governments can get a little tricky. There are County Governments and Municipal Governments; while both serve their residents, county governments are a subordinate of state governments. Municipal governments, such as city council, are centered around a population center, and often run independent of state governments and parties.
There are a total of 29 California cities and counties holding local elections in 2024. Each election has at least one of 25 positions up for election, including:
Board of Supervisors
Special Districts (of which there are 16 types of districts)
Superior Court Judges
Board of Education
17 cities in California are holding city council elections in 2024. These include:
City councils are a part of municipal government; they have legislative, executive, and quasi-judicial powers. Because they are not a direct faction of state government, they can produce and implement their own laws and policies to the extent that they do not override state-level legislation. They are responsible for public works, such as parks and recreation, first responders, and housing districts.
In their executive role, they also can levy taxes and adopt the budget proposed by the mayor. The council acts as a governing body with the mayor, and is responsible for the laws that are specific to the district. It is the body of government most responsible for your day-to-day, meeting your needs, and often, creating the landscape of your city. City council members are elected to serve four-year terms, and various cities have different term limits.
Similar to city council, a board of supervisors has legislative, executive, and quasi-judicial authorities. Its fundamental function is to implement state law and public policies to local governments. The board of supervisors differs from local government within cities, as they are a local division of state government. The board of supervisors oversees county officials, county departments, and programs. In their executive role, they annually approve program budgets, control county property, and allocate the division of resources to meet their residents’ needs. Members of the board serve four-year terms and are limited to three four-year terms in office.
Special districts are another important form of local government where professionals with field expertise deliver specialized services to a community. Scientists, firefighters, engineers, healthcare professionals, urban development, water and environmental experts, to name a few, will form special districts that receive state funding to provide services local governments do not provide.
There are independent and dependent special districts. Independent special districts have a separate board of directors that are often elected in local elections, and thus are more directly tied to the community they serve. Dependent special districts are more closely tied to local government. Often, city council members will serve as the board of directors and control their budget and operations.
15 special districts are up for election in the fall of 2024. The people that you vote into positions in special districts will serve as board members for those districts, ultimately managing the budget, operation, and overall goals for the resources and services in your community.
Here are a few special districts that are up for election this year:
Riverside, Santa Clara, San Joaquin, Sacramento, Orange County, LA County, Kern County, and Alameda County have water districts up for election in the fall.
Their purposes are, but not limited to, water delivery, waste disposal, flood control, and water conservation. Many water districts work closely with public utilities, and thus with local governments even if they have their own elected board. Water districts are a crucial subdivision of local government in California, as the state has been in a D4 level drought signifying “Exceptional Drought” for 5 out of the past 10 years.
Alameda County and San Diego County have healthcare districts up for election this year. Healthcare districts in California provide access to essential health care services tailored to the community that they serve. Each healthcare district provides different medical services, some being hospital care, emergency room and trauma care, nursing facilities, and nutrition education. Each healthcare district is governed by a locally elected board of directors, and is crucial to expanding access to medical care in California. They often serve underserved populations and uninsured Californians.
Fresno County is holding an election for the veterans memorial district, which is dedicated to honoring a large portion of the county’s population: veterans. They are responsible for the upkeep of the community heritage center and community events. This is an example of how a special district works to meet needs specific to their population.
There are two types of state courts in California, the superior court (also called a trial court) and the appellate courts. The superior courts are similar to district courts on the federal level, and the appellate courts are made up of the Courts of Appeal and the California Supreme Court. Superior courts handle civil cases, including family law, probate, and juvenile cases, in addition to criminal cases including felonies, misdemeanors, and infractions, such as traffic tickets. Each county has its own superior court; the judges are elected through local nonpartisan elections to serve six-year terms.
City attorneys generally handle civil cases, representing the city in legal proceedings. City attorneys also may advise a city’s legislative body, such as city council, on legal issues. They are elected to serve four-year terms.
A district attorney, also called the county attorney or county prosecutor, represents the government in criminal cases. They are responsible for prosecuting an individual suspected of breaking the law, and they have the jurisdiction to initiate and direct criminal investigations, grant immunity to witnesses and accused criminals, and plea bargain with defendants. They often represent a county or a group of counties, and in California, DAs serve four-year terms.
10 California counties have their county boards of education up for local election in 2024. The board of education generally works with the superintendent and to connect the community to the local county government. Each county in California has a board of education, and they generally oversee community schools, charter schools, special education, juvenile court schools, and the services and budgets of school districts. Board members serve four-year terms.
The Sheriff’s office is a division of a county’s local government. They are responsible for public safety, preventing, detecting, and investigating crimes in a given county. They also operate jails and prisons, provide courthouse security, and coordinate with city police departments. Most sheriffs serve four-year terms.
The treasurer and tax collector’s office is combined in California. The tax collector oversees the billing, collection, and reporting of property taxes. They operate under the state Constitution. The treasurer deposits and manages the property taxes and fees collected. Most treasurer-tax collectors are elected in nonpartisan elections.
All in all, the local officials you vote for can affect the services you receive, how your small business is supported, your area’s resources, and even the landscape that you see everyday. Furthermore, federal laws are implemented by your local officials, so even if there is large-scale change, it will depend on your local officials how that affects your day-to-day life. The reverse is also true; the change enacted at the local level has the potential to grow to state or federal policies.
Be sure to keep these dates in mind to vote in your federal, state, and local elections:
February 5, 2024 – California county elections office will begin mailing ballots.
February 20, 2024 – This is the last day to register to vote for the March 5, 2024 Presidential Primary Election.
February 24, 2024 – Voting centers open for early in-person voting.
March 5, 2024 – Election day.
March 12, 2024 – Vote-by-mail ballots must be received by this date and postmarked on or before election day.
August 29, 2024 – The certified list of candidates for the general election will be posted.
October 7, 2024 – Election officials will start mailing each registered voter a vote-by-mail ballot by this day. Early voting sites open.
October 8, 2024 – Ballot drop-off locations will be open, and will remain open until November 5, 2024.
October 21, 2024 – Last day to register to vote in the general election.
November 5, 2024 – Election day.
November 12, 2024 – Vote-by-mail ballots must be received by this date and postmarked on or before election day.
Make sure your local government represents you.
Understanding what each of these roles do is crucial when voting for representatives that will shape your community.
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