High-profile federal and state races aren’t the only political contests that will be decided in the Nov. 8 midterm elections. Many communitis across Texas will be choosing local leaders on Election Day. Early voting begins Monday Oct. 24 and continues through Friday Nov. 4.
All Texans, including those in unincorporated territories, live in a county and public school district, which provide public services. They also set local tax rates that determine homeowners’ property tax bills.
Several county seats and school board positions will be on ballots. Texans living in cities may also see candidates for city council and mayor. Some voters may have a say on local propositions for bonds, which allow governments to take on debt to fund projects, or to increase tax revenue.
“Local elections really impact people’s lives,” said Joyce LeBombard, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas.
County elections are partisan races, while school board and city council races are typically nonpartisan, though some candidates may identify with a party.
Keeping up with all elections and government officials is hard, so here’s a breakdown of what school boards and most county offices do, as well as some tips to learn about your local candidates.
Administrative county government
County leaders run local elections, implement state and federal laws and provide public services, especially for residents who live outside of incorporated city boundaries. All elected county offices are held for four-year terms.
These bodies serve as the board that governs county government, much like how a city council governs a municipality. The commissioners court adopts a county budget and tax rate, approves county contracts and calls for bond elections to fund roads and construction. This is often where politics or disagreements unfold over funding priorities or taxes, said Drew Landry, an assistant professor of government for South Plains College.
The commissioners court plays an important role in elections by appointing election judges who oversee polling locations in each precinct. The court also conducts the official tally of local votes for county and state elections and can appoint the county clerk or an elections administrator to serve as the voter registrar instead of the county tax assessor-collector.
Counties have less room to enact policies and often must lobby the state Legislature to expand or change the scope of their work, said Jen Crownover, a Comal County commissioner and the first vice president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
“Anything we do has to be found in statute,” she said. “In city [government], it’s the opposite. As long as it’s not against the law and they have the support, then they can do it.”
The county judge presides over the commissioners court the way mayors preside over city councils. Despite the title, county judges do not have to be judges or have a legal background.
A county judge can also issue disaster declarations to request aid from other agencies and to enact emergency measures, as allowed under law. This gives county judges a lot of power during emergencies, but they must be supported by the commissioners court in order to continue emergency declarations and measures, said Tarrant County Judge B. Glen Whitley, president of the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas.
In smaller counties, county judges may also carry out judicial duties, including presiding over misdemeanor and small civil cases and appeals from Justice of the Peace Court, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
Each county has four commissioners elected to represent four different county precincts or districts on the commissioners court. Commissioners are in charge of road building and maintenance in their precincts.
Commissioners are elected in staggered terms. This year, commissioners across the state for local precincts two and four are up for election, Landry said.
County treasurers look after county funds, working with banks to receive and deposit county revenue, distributing funds as directed by the commissioners court and accounting for expenses and funds. In some counties, treasurers may also prepare payroll, act as a human resources officer, be designated to invest funds and take on some auditing responsibilities in counties without a county auditor, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
In addition to county taxes, tax assessor-collectors can collect taxes for other taxing entities, such as schools and cities, as well as other fees for the state and county. They can also handle motor vehicle and boat title transfers and registrations, according to the Texas Association of Counties, and register voters. In some cases, they may also run elections.
A county clerk keeps records and carries out administrative tasks for county courts and commissioners courts. This includes maintaining public records — such as birth and death certificates, business names and brands — issuing marriage licenses and taking depositions. In most counties, clerks also serve as the chief elections officer, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
County law enforcement and courts
Justice of the peace
Justices of the peace preside over justice courts, which hear cases for traffic violations and Class C misdemeanors. Justices of the peace can also hear minor civil cases, truancy cases, tenant disputes and small claims cases and issue search or arrest warrants. They may also perform marriage ceremonies and serve as a coroner in counties without a medical examiner.
A district clerk manages records for district courts, which hear felony criminal cases and civil cases. In addition to records, a district clerk collects filing fees, handles funds in litigation and coordinates jury panel selections. The clerk can also process passport applications, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
A county attorney provides legal advice to county elected officials and prosecutes misdemeanor criminal cases before justices of the peace and county courts. They can also work with law enforcement to investigate criminal cases and represent the state in district courts in counties without district attorneys, per the Texas Association of Counties.
In addition to the state’s general candidacy requirements, a county attorney must be a practicing lawyer or judge.
A district attorney analyzes evidence to decide whether to prosecute a criminal case. Their job includes working with law enforcement in investigations, presenting cases to grand juries, representing victims seeking protective orders and representing the state to remove children from abusive households, according to the Texas Association of Counties.
A district attorney must be a practicing lawyer or judge to qualify for the office.
Constables are licensed peace officers, like other law enforcement officers, but they deliver legal documents such as warrants, subpoenas, temporary restraining orders and eviction notices. They also serve as bailiffs for justice of the peace courts and can issue traffic tickets.
A sheriff, also a licensed police officer, is in charge of managing and operating county jails and can serve warrants and civil papers. Sheriff’s departments also provide security for courts, seize property after judgment and respond to calls for emergency protection outside of a city or town. In smaller counties, the sheriff may also act as a tax assessor and collector, according to the Texas Association of Counties. Sheriffs are less likely to appear on the ballot this year since many were elected in 2020.
School boards provide oversight and management of public school districts. That means they approve a district’s budget and tax rate and hire the superintendent, who is in charge of the day-to-day operations in schools.
“They are unpaid volunteers, and they are there to represent the will of the community in their local schools,” said Joy Baskin, associate executive director of policy and legal services for the Texas Association of School Boards. “Local schools are often the largest employer. They often have the largest public facilities and, of course, they are the place where we educate our future.”
Trustees can also set district policies as allowed under state and federal laws or directives. For example, Texas requires districts to create emergency plans and conduct safety drills but leaves a lot of decisions about safety up to individual districts.
The State Board of Education, a partisan elected body, sets the expectations for what students should learn in each grade level and course, but school boards can decide which approaches and instructional materials to use in their classrooms, Baskin said.
Members of a school board are elected in either May or November, depending on local decisions, said Kristi Clark, TASB’s policy service director. During the upcoming November elections, about 315 school boards will hold elections, according to Clark.
School board members can be elected through at-large elections or district-based elections and some districts have a hybrid of the two. A person cannot serve on a school board if they have been convicted of a felony or solicitation of prostitution, according to TASB, even if they have been pardoned or completed their sentence.
School districts generally hold elections along with a county or city partner, but Clark said they may decide to only share one polling location. So voters should check to see if polling locations for school board and other local elections coincide.
How to vet your local candidates
Given that local elections, such as for school boards, don’t typically feature major fundraising and TV or radio ads, it can be harder to know who is running for office and why.
Get a sample ballot
The best place to see what candidates you can vote for is through your sample ballot, which can usually be found through your county’s election website. Find yours here.
Check your local news and voter guides
Local news media, including newspapers, public radio and TV stations, tend to publish guides outlining local races and measures on the ballot, especially in larger cities and metropolitan areas.
The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voter education organization, also makes voter guides available through its website, vote411.org.
In-depth local guides are not available in areas without a local league, but LeBombard said the league is always looking to expand and its local chapters can be made up of as few as three dedicated members.
Look online and ask around
Many candidates create Facebook pages or use their Facebook account to publicize their qualifications and values. Some also use Twitter and campaign websites. But not all information posted online by candidates or others may be true or completely accurate.
“You have to be careful of what you’re looking at, and so make sure you’re looking at a variety of sources,” LeBombard said.
Voters can also seek the voting records of elected officials or reach out to officials and candidates to learn more about them, said Sylvia Gonzalez-Gorman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.
“One of the easiest ways to do it is call,” she said, “and ask, you know, ‘I was wondering about your stance on X, Y, Z’ or ‘Can you tell me how you voted on this?’”
This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune.