Chatham University

What's on Your Ballot?

Pennsylvania has an election every year, twice a year in the fall and spring. Here are some positions and their descriptions that you might see on your ballot. To find out who is running for these positions on your ballot check out

Federal Level

+ President (POTUS)

The President of the United States is elected to serve a four-year term. They can serve two four-year terms consecutively or non-consecutively. The President is the head of government in the country and Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces. The President's main duty is to enforce and execute laws created by Congress (the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate). While the President can approve or veto laws enacted by Congress, Congress can override these decisions by a two-thirds majority vote. 29

+ Vice President (VP)

The President chooses their Vice President before they are elected. The main responsibility of the Vice President is to take over the role of President if they are unable to serve due to death, illness, or if the majority of the Cabinet (15 executive office departments appointed by the President, including the Department of Agriculture, Education, etc.) and the Vice President deems that the President unfit to serve. The Vice President also casts a vote in the Senate to break a tie. 29

+ United States Senator

U.S. Senators are elected to serve six-year terms without any term limits. Each state elects two U.S. Senators to serve. The Senate has the power to impeach a government official. Senators vote on bills, amendments, notions, treaties, resolutions, and nominations. 31 32

+ United States House of Representatives

U.S. House of Representatives members serve two-year terms without term limits. They serve constituents who live in their Congressional district. U.S. Representatives serve on committees, create bills and resolutions, and offer amendments. 30

State Level

+ Governor

The Governor is the head of a state and the chief executive officer. They are also the Commander in Chief of the state's military. Governors are elected to serve up to two consecutive four-year terms. This elected official has the ability to veto or approve bills created by the General Assembly (the State House and Senate). However, the General Assembly can override these decisions by a two-thirds majority vote. The Governor also has the ability to recommend legislation to the General Assembly. Additionally, they are in charge of appointing the Secretary of Education. 33

+ Lieutenant Governor

The primary role of the Lieutenant (Lt) Governor is to succeed the Governor in the event they are unable to serve, due to, but not limited to illness, or death. Additionally, the Lieutenant Governor assists the Governor in making executive decisions and serves as the President of the Senate. This official is elected and can serve up to two consecutive four-year terms. 38

+ State Senator

State Senators are elected to serve four-year terms and are the upper chamber of the legislative branch. They work with the Governor to create laws and a state budget. State Senators also serve on various committees. 34

+ State House of Representatives

State House of Representatives are in charge of creating bills and assisting in establishing a state budget. Additional responsibilities of Representatives include raising and lowering taxes. They serve two-year terms in the lower chamber of the legislative branch. 35

+ Attorney General

The Attorney General is elected every four years. They are the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of the state and are responsible for collecting taxes, debts, and accounts owed to the state. They serve on commissions including: the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, the Board of Finance and Revenue, and the Municipal Police Officers Education and Training Commission. 36

+ Auditor General

The Auditor General serves four-year terms. They complete audits, or investigations of financial information, to determine if the state money, such as school districts and fire relief associations, is being spent legally and properly. 37

+ State Treasurer

The Treasurer is the state's chief financial officer and banker. They manage the state's money. Some other responsibilities include investigation loss, theft, or fraud of state checks. The Treasurer evaluates real estate leases and contracts, is the chair of the Board of Finance and Revenue, and decides tax appeals. They are elected to serve four-year terms. 4

+ Superior Court Judge

This court is made up of three judges which hear appeals from criminal, family, and civil cases handled by County Courts of Common Pleas. Most of the job involves workday reviews of those Court of Common Pleas decisions. 40

+ Commonwealth Court

This court consists of nine judges elected to ten-year terms. The court decides civil disputes involving the state itself and hears appeals against decisions made by state agencies. s 40

County Level

+ County Executive

The County Executive is the head of county government and presides over the County Council. The County Executive is elected to a four-year term. When elected, the executive has the executive power to create a county budget, enact county policies, and approve or veto ordinances and resolutions. 19 20

+ County Commissioner

A County Commission consists of three full-time members that serve as executives for the county operating under a charter. These elected officials are in charge of policymaking and setting goals to reach desired outcomes in the county. County Commissioners also make decisions within the county that do not conflict with state and federal policies in areas such as budgeting, land use, construction, maintenance, tax levies, county funding, and county property. 3

+ Council Member

The number of Council Members varies depending on the county. They are elected to four-year terms. The role of a County Council Member is to approve legislation submitted by the County Executive or other council members. Other responsibilities include creating a county budget, administering the use of county land, as well as imposing taxes and fees. 13

+ District Attorney

A District Attorney (DA) represents the county in criminal prosecutions. They decide if a person who has committed a crime should be taken to court. If they choose to prosecute the person(s), they must prove to a jury that a crime was committed by the individual. 5 6

+ County Sheriff

A County Sheriff is an elected official who is the main law enforcement officer of the county and oversees the county police department. Sheriffs enforce criminal, civil, and traffic laws. Additionally, they secure courtrooms, serve court papers, and assist in transporting incarcerated persons to the jail. Sheriffs are elected to serve four-year terms. 8 9

+ Coroner

A Coroner is an elected official who investigates the cause of a person's death and works to confirm the identity of an unknown person who has been found dead. 4

+ County Treasurer

A County Treasurer is in charge of receiving and receipting all money due to the county, distributing funds, investing county surplus funds, maintaining financial records of money received and distributed, and holding individuals or entities accountable if they owe money to the county. 10

+ County Controller

The main duty of a County Controller is to manage the county's fiscal affairs. For example, the controller is in charge of processing payroll, administering the accounting system, providing financial reports, and disbursing funds. Some controllers also have similar responsibilities as an auditor. 11 12

+ County Auditor

In Pennsylvania, County Auditors are individually elected by the residents of each 6th, 7th, and 8th Class county. To learn more about county classes click here. They serve four-year terms. Auditors are responsible for the settlement and adjustment of all accounts held by county officials and appointees. Auditors produce reports on these financial records for the Court of Common Pleas, the Department of Community and Economic Development, the State Attorney General, and the Office of the Pennsylvania Courts. 15

+ Prothonotary

The Prothonotary is the principal Clerk of Courts. A Prothonotary's duties are therefore similar to the Clerk of Courts. This elected official is responsible for acquiring bonds from civil cases, issuing legal documents that ask a person to begin or stop a certain action (i.e., protection from abuse orders) and processing appeals. 7

+ Clerk of Courts

The Clerk of Courts is in charge of receiving, processing, maintaining, and storing all records and documents filed in court cases. The elected official appears in court for jury trials, collects court fees and fines, including bail, and documents court verdicts and sentences. They also certify drivers' licenses to the DMV. 1 2

+ Register of Wills

The role of the Register of Wills is to establish the validity of wills and grant letters of administration if a person is deceased but did not leave a will. They maintain records of wills and inventory of the deceased's estates and documents. The register is also in charge of collecting the state inheritance tax. This official is elected to serve four-year terms. 17

+ Recorder of Deeds

The Recorders of Deeds is elected to serve four-year terms. They are in charge of recording and filing deeds, mortgages, and other documents, such as those relating to real estate. 16

+ Jury Commissioner

Jury Commissioners are elected or appointed officials whose main job is to select prospective jury members to serve a term in court. They determine who is fit to be jurors. 14

+ Clerk of Judicial Records

The Clerk of Judicial Records is in charge of maintaining documents for the County Common Pleas. The clerk collects the filing fees, time stamps, issues receipts, proofreads indexes, certifies court seals, exemplifies, notifies, copies, and communicates by mail or phone the legally mandated information. Additionally, the Clerk completes record keeping for Juvenile Probation and Children and Youth Services. The clerk is elected to a four-year term. 18

+ Clerk of Orphan's Court

The Clerk of Orphans' Court is responsible for keeping track of records from the Orphan's Court. The clerk has the ability to issue marriage licenses. They also maintain and file all guardianship papers for minors and incapacitated persons, as well as delayed birth registrations, and adoptions. 21 22

+ Court of Common Pleas

The Court of Common Pleas handles civil matters, Family Court cases, such as divorce and adoption. They also hear Orphans' Court cases, which includes trusts and estates, criminal matters, and zoning appeals. Additionally, these judges handle District Justice cases. 23

Municipal (Local) Level

+ Mayor

The mayor governs the city or town's daily administrative tasks and works with the legislative body - typically a council or commission - to create and enforce policies. They also review proposed budgets. Mayors often appoint other staffers and create advisory boards composed of community members and local businesses. They also participate in public events and ceremonies, execute official documents, and lead discussions on various issues. 24

+ Commissioner/Borough Council Member/ Supervisor

City/Township/Borough Commissioners are individually elected officials that serve on a small governing board of about five to seven members. They have both legislative and executive powers to govern the municipality. Commissioners are elected on an at-large basis but can also be elected from wards or districts. 25

+ Township or City Auditor

Township or City Auditors are in charge of being transparent about what the local government is doing, specifically how the township/city money is being spent. 27

+ School Board Director

There are typically nine members, or directors, per School Board that are elected to serve four-year terms, unpaid. School Board Directors work to administer and make decisions for the school system in each district. 26

+ Magisterial District Judge

Magisterial District Judges serve six-year terms. They must live in the district that they preside over. These judges are responsible for handling district traffic cases and minor civil and criminal cases involving up to $12,000. These judges determine bail and hold preliminary hearings to determine if it is a felony or misdemeanor case and should be heard by the Court of Common Pleas. 28

Additional Definitions

Definitions to better understand elected officials' positions, elections, and government.

Branches of Government

+ Executive

This branch of government is in charge of enacting and enforcing public policies created and funded by the legislative branch. 47

+ Legislative

This branch of government is in charge of creating laws and allocating funds needed for the government to function. 46 47

+ Judicial

The purpose of this branch of government is to interpret laws and determine if the laws created violate the United States Constitution. 47

Types of Elections

+ Primary Election

  • Primary Elections occur every year.
  • Most years these elections are held on the third Tuesday of May.
  • During Presidential election years, these elections occur on the fourth Tuesday of April.
  • In Pennsylvania, we have what is called a "closed" primary. Only constituents registered as a Democrat or Republican are able to vote in these elections. Registered Democrats will receive a ballot that only has individuals running as a Democrat on it, and registered Republicans will receive a ballot that only has individuals running as Republicans. * 41

    *In some cases, such as the race in Allegheny County for Court of Common Pleas, candidates may affiliate with one party but gain enough signatures to be on the other party's ballot for the primary election. 42

    + What if I am registered as an Independent or Third-Party (Green, Libertarian, etc.)?

    • You cannot vote in a closed primary. Sometimes there are questions on ballots during a primary election that every registered voter can vote on. Registered Independent and third-party constituents are able to vote on these questions when they are present, but not on any of the candidates. 43

+ General Election

  • This election occurs every year on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November.
  • Voters vote for federal, state, and local officials; it is a matter of what is on the ballot that year (i.e., municipal, state, federal, or county offices). 41

+ Municipal Election

  • A type of primary and general election.
  • These occur during odd number election years (i.e., 2021).
  • Federal or state offices do not appear on the ballot. 41
  • County or local level positions are voted on:
    • County and city elected officials
    • School board directors.
    • Judges and magisterial district judges

+ Special Election

  • Occurs when someone currently in office can no longer serve due to resignation, death, or removal from office.
  • Date is chosen by the county election's office and will be advertised to constituents. 41

Appointed vs. Elected Officials

+ Elected Officials

Constituents choose a candidate to vote for from a slate of candidates in an election, the winner of which is referred to as an elected official. 44

+ Appointed Officials

Officials not voted on by the public but selected by a leader or body of elected officials. For instance, the President of the United States appoints individuals to serve in their cabinet. 44

Bills and Resolutions

+ Resolutions

Expressions from the House or Senate. For example, elected officials make resolutions to celebrate Pride month and the LGBTQ+ community. 45

+ Bills

Legislation that if passed by the House and Senate and signed by the President (federal) or Governor (state) becomes a law. 45