Local Politics

If you’ve decided to pursue a political science major, there’s a very good chance you’re already involved with, or at least knowledgeable about, politics at the state and local levels. If you stop to think about it, there’s a good chance you participate, to some degree, in government nearly every day. If you have children who attend public school, if you visit the library or have ever gotten a parking ticket, if you’ve renewed your driver’s license or registered a car, you’re interacting with government.

Each of the fifty states is given the authority to govern its citizens through its unique constitution. While the Constitution of the United States is a fairly simple document, state constitutions are far more complex. In part, that’s because the 10th amendment puts all powers and decisions not reserved for the federal government into the hands of the states. Every state has an executive, a judicial, and a legislative branch, just like the federal government, because each state has chosen to follow the federal model; it’s not mandated by the Constitution or another legal document.

The state governor heads the state’s executive branch, just as the president heads the federal executive branch. Governors are chosen through direct and free elections, as are lieutenant governors, who are the state equivalent of the vice president. Most states also permit the citizens to elect the secretary of state, attorney general, commissioners, and state auditors.

In every state except Nebraska, congress is composed of elected representatives, who are members of the “lower house” and are greater in number, and senators, who occupy the “upper house” or “upper chamber.” Typically, state senators are elected for four years. In most states, representatives serve two years. As in the federal model, they are tasked with proposing and examining legislation that may, with a sufficient number of votes, become laws. The legislature also finalizes the state’s annual budget and can initiate impeachment.

The state judicial branch is, in most cases, under the jurisdiction of the state Supreme Court. In some cases, the state’s constitution determines how judicial appointments are made. In others, it’s the state’s legislature that makes the decision. The job of the state Supreme Court is to oversee judgments made by the lower courts and to review those that are controversial to ensure that no error in law has occurred. While state Supreme Court decisions are binding, they can be challenged and overturned at the federal level.

Locally, government is most often organized into two levels. The larger type of local government is called a county, borough, or parish. The smaller is called a municipality, township, borough, town, or village. The structure of each is determined by the state’s constitution.

At the municipal level, decisions are made concerning recreational services, including parks, housing, fire and police departments, ambulance and other emergency services, local courts, public transportation, signage, sewers, streets, and snow removal.

Any powers the local municipality, city, or township holds is granted to it by the state. Public servants such as city council members and mayors are chosen in open and direct public elections.

Last Updated: 05/22/2014


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