Government 101: Candidate Guide to Our Political System | National Democratic Training Committee

Between all of the different levels, offices, and various organizations involved in American government, it can be tough to keep track!

So, if you’re thinking about getting involved in politics, you should start by understanding the alphabet soup that is our political system.

That’s why we’ve put together this basic Government 101 candidate guide. The information in this guide will help you figure out the best way to get involved in creating change in your community!

Elected Offices

U.S. Congress

Let’s start with the U.S. Congress. This is the legislative branch of the federal government, split into two chambers— the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.

The House has 435 members, allocated based on each state’s population. Every member of the House is up for reelection every two years. That means 435 seats are on the ballot every even year

The Senate has one hundred members (two per state) who are in office for 6 years. Senate elections occur in waves, so one-third of the chamber is on the ballot every two years.

As a whole, Congress is primarily responsible for writing and passing federal laws. But as a whole, it is responsible for oversight and giving advice and consent on any presidential nominations, as well.

State Legislator

Each state has a body of elected officials who oversee legislation submitted by the governor or a member of the legislature. This group is responsible for approving the state budget, tax legislation, and other state laws.

Most states have a bicameral legislature made up of two chambers, typically an upper and lower house. The upper house is usually called the Senate while the lower chamber is known as the House of Representatives. However, other states refer to it as the State Assembly or the House of Delegates.

Local Council

Local government is typically divided into two tiers: counties and municipalities, also known as cities and towns.

For both levels, your council is generally responsible for local issues like;

  • Parks and recreation
  • Police and fire departments
  • Housing
  • Local Courts
  • Transportation
  • Public works

The members of this body propose and vote on ordinances, or local legislation, within this umbrella of responsibilities.

School Board

Some places refer to their school board by other names such as boards of education, school committees, or school directors and trustees.

Regardless of the name, school boards are in charge of a lot of important responsibilities in your community. The board typically employs the school superintendent, develop school policies, curricula, budgets, and oversee facility management.

More often than not, school districts are the largest employers in a community. This means they are in charge of big-picture budget decisions that impact the entire community!

Alphabet Soup

It’s great to have an understanding of which government offices are which, but it’s also important to know about different organizations that help Democrats get elected!

The Democratic National Committee

We usually refer to the Democratic National Committee as the “DNC” or “the party.” The DNC is run by a chair and board elected by DNC members, who are elected by state party members.

Every presidential election year the DNC hosts the Democratic National Convention. This is where the party establishes it’s official platform and formally endorses a candidate for president.

The DNC has a lot of influence in presidential campaigns, but it does not have jurisdiction over how state primary elections are run. The DNC supports and influences politics through their resources, but they have no authority over elected officials and governing processes.

National, State, and Local Party Committees

Party committees support candidates in all levels and branches of the government. These committees provide financial and institutional resources to new and incumbent Democratic candidates.

Some Democratic committees include;

Almost all states and most municipalities have their own committees to elect Democrats to local offices. If you’re unsure whether there is a committee in your area try googling local Democratic committees to find out!

Knowledge is Power

We hope this Government 101 guide gives you a better understanding of government structure and your local Democratic party. Hopefully, with this knowledge, you have a better idea of how you can get involved in your community and create positive change.

If you’re still unsure about how you want to get involved try taking our So You Think You Want To Run course to get a better idea about what office is right for you.

Now, what are you waiting for? Get out there and create change!

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Allison Senanayake

Allison is the Operations Associate for the Staff Academy and Live Training teams at NDTC, and she led the operational and logistical efforts for the inaugural Staff Academy cohort through the recruitment, training, and placement phases. She continues to build and scale these efforts in order to expand the NDTC’s Staff Academy’s impact within the political ecosystem. A recent graduate from DePaul University, Allison holds a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Politics and a minor in Arabic. Prior to NDTC, she was heavily involved in Chicago non-profits as a student organizer spanning community service efforts. She served for four years and was a senior member of the DePaul Community Service Association Executive Board, in which she served as a primary liaison between DePaul University and nonprofits across Chicago. When she is out of the office, Allison visits her family overseas, bakes anything and everything, learns new languages, and roams Montrose Beach.