Anatomy of a Ballot: Here's What to Expect If You're Voting For the First Time

The North Star has dropped its paywall during this COVID-19 crisis so that pertinent information and analysis is available to everyone during this time. This is only possible because of the generous support of our members. We rely on these funds to pay our staff to continue to provide high-quality content. If you are able to support, we invite you to do so here.

I am 18 years old and this is my first time voting in a national election. I have been waiting for this moment since Donald Trump was sworn into office in my freshman year of high school. I have been waiting for my turn to cast my vote and make a difference.

I just wasn’t prepared for how many things I would be voting for.

It’s not just the president who will be elected on November 3. Thousands of vitally important positions across the country are up for election, each with the power to make positive or negative changes. We are choosing who occupies those offices, who holds that power.

To make myself a more informed voter, I began searching for a master list of possible positions that I will be voting for come Election Day. Unable to find one that stated things in plain terms, I made a list to share with young voters just like myself.

National Positions


  • You already know. The president can sign or veto legislation, pardon incarcerated people, command America’s wildly inflated armed forces and make misspelled, mostly unfounded statements on Twitter.

    U.S. Senate

  • Senators can propose and ratify laws, which are then sent to the House of Representatives. As of now, the Senate is majority Republican. Each state has two senators, meaning there are 100 total in Congress.

    U.S. House of Representatives

  • Representatives can also propose and ratify laws, which are then sent to the Senate. As of now, the House is majority Democrat. The number of House representatives is determined by the population of a state. The more citizens, the more representatives you’ve got.

State Positions

Secretary of State

  • While powers and responsibilities differ from state to state, common duties for secretary of states include: the oversight of all elections, maintenance of state records and certification of official documents.

Attorney General

  • In charge of enforcing state laws and advising the state government of legal matters. Attorney generals can issue formal opinions to state agencies, and serve as public advocates for a variety of issues.

State Legislature

  • Although it differs slightly by state, the State Legislature operates like a smaller version of Congress. It is a bicameral legislature made up of the State Senate and State Assembly, all elected positions. They have the power to propose and approve laws, initiate tax laws, and approve the state budget.

State Judges

  • All 50 states have supreme courts that operate as state versions of the U.S. Supreme Court. These state supreme courts hear all cases that are not selected for federal court. The judges who control these seats are all elected and have the power to interpret state laws as they best see fit.


  • In cases where government agencies need to be investigated for issues relating to finances, the auditor leads and determines the scope of the investigation. This position is elected in some states, and appointed by the state government or legislature in others.

Superintendent of Schools

  • The superintendent of schools is responsible for coordinating and overseeing projects within the state’s elementary and secondary schools. This position is appointed by the Board of Education, governor or Board of Regents in some states and directly elected in others.

Local Positions


  • Mayors are the municipal managers for the day-to-day operations of a town. They approve financial decisions, city planning projects and have the power to veto laws. They control who operates the different departments within local government. They essentially are the CEO of a city.

Public Advocate

  • Much like the name implies, public advocates serve as a way to connect everyday people to the decisions made by their government. The public advocate works to bring the problems of the people to light and ensures they receive aid from their government. They also protect marginalized groups from neglect or abuse.

District Attorney

  • One of the most powerful jobs in government, DAs have the ability to decide whether or not to bring charges against people, what cases to prosecute and review police arrest reports. They play a huge role in deciding the prison populations within their district.

City council

  • City council members are a broad representation of their city's people and have the power to propose, pass and ratify laws. City councils also manage city budgets and investigate city agencies.


  • Comptrollers are essentially the financial advisor of the city. They protect the city’s fiscal health, find where money is being used effectively or where it is being wasted, and safeguards the city from fraud and abuse within the local government.

School Board

  • School boards have the power to develop and adopt different policies that will affect public schools within the district. They also make decisions on taught curriculum and the annual budget.


  • A treasurer’s primary responsibility is to manage the cash flow of city agencies and the investment or disbursement of municipal funds. In some states, this position is appointed by the city council or manager, while in others it is directly elected.

County Judges

  • County judges are the presiding judge of the county. In some states, this position is appointed by the Governor and chosen by partisan election in others.

States Ballot Measures

Ballot measures are proposed laws, policies and amendments that are directly voted on by the people rather than by elected representatives. Below are some of the types of measures that you may be voting on:

Legislatively referred amendments

  • A proposed amendment to the state’s constitution that is proposed by the state’s legislature.


  • Petitions with a minimum number of signatures proposing statute or constitutional amendments to be voted on by the public.

Veto referendums

  • Veto referendums uphold or repeal a law that has already been passed by a state legislative body.

Legislatively referred state statutes

  • A proposed statute that the state legislature decides should be voted on by the people rather than by themselves.

Advisory questions

  • Citizens vote on a non-binding question that does not result in any sort of new or changed law or amendment.

Bond issues

  • Bond issues are voted on to approve or deny additional spending of government funds.

    To see what positions are on your local ballot for November 3, click here for more information.