An election for state and local government offices was held in the U.S. on November 7. In our analysis, “Five misleading implications in the Virginia election coverage,” we noted the faulty reasoning in assuming state elections will necessarily be an indicator of next year’s midterm election results. In order to put this week’s elections in context, here we explain how state governments are structured, and how they relate to the federal government.
Each state has its own constitution and governmental hierarchy. State governments are structured in the same way as the federal government, with executive, legislative and judicial branches. The number of elected positions in each branch may vary by state and population. Rules regarding minimum age requirements for elected positions, citizenship and residency requirements, or term limits may also vary by state.
Generally, states must abide by federal law. Although federal law supercedes state law, states may enact laws that differ or are counter to federal laws, executive orders or other federal guidelines. In such cases, the federal judiciary may take action against the state.
State executive branch
The state governor is elected by the state’s voters to lead the executive branch. Depending on the state, people may also elect other members of the executive branch, such as the lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, and auditors and commissioners. The state executive branch typically works independently from the federal executive branch. However, the governor may request that the president declare a federal emergency to allow the state to receive federal funding.
Locally elected representatives make up a state’s legislative branch. Legislative duties include creating state legislation (from matters raised by the governor or by members of the state congress), approving the state’s budget and issuing articles of impeachment. Except for Nebraska, all states have an upper chamber (the Senate) and a lower chamber (the House of Representatives). Senate legislators typically serve longer terms than House legislators. The lower chamber may also be called the House of Delegates or General Assembly. Legislators are elected from districts throughout the state. The number of legislators elected to each chamber varies by state.
Note: People who serve in a state’s Senate and House are separate from those who represent the state in the U.S. Congress. In the U.S. Senate, for example, each state has two senators representing the state, which equals a total of 100 U.S. senators in Congress. The number of U.S. House Representatives per state varies by population. The U.S. House currently has a maximum of 435 representatives.
State judicial branch
The state judicial branch is the state’s court system. The judicial branch is led by the state supreme court, which hears appeals from lower-level state courts. Since state legislators can determine a state’s court structure, the number of courts and the number of elected judges may vary by state. A state supreme court ruling is typically binding, unless the ruling is appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Local governments can also vary by state. Some states may have local representation for counties, boroughs, parishes, municipalities, cities, towns, villages or townships. They are usually responsible for regulating parks services, police and fire departments, housing services, emergency medical services, municipal courts, transportation services (such as buses and road maintenance) and waste removal.
Read our full analysis on the election: Five misleading implications in the Virginia election coverage.
Jens Erik Gould
Jens is a political, business and entertainment writer and editor who has reported from a dozen countries for media outlets including The New York Times, National Public Radio and Bloomberg News