How Mayors Work

Mayoral Elections

As with the duties of mayor, the election process from city to city can vary widely. A city's charter or other city ordinances determine all the number of candidates allowed to run, as well as the primary, general and runoff elections. In order to understand how local politics in cities work, we'll take a look at some examples of elections and campaigns.

Local government elections can resemble national government politics: Campaigning is involved, there are voters, and there are usually many candidates at the beginning. But cities differ greatly on how the overall process is accomplished.


For example, in New Orleans, the 2006 election after Hurricane Katrina brought 21 candidates who competed in one large primary election. In New Orleans, candidates run against each other with no partisan affiliation [Source: Brox]. A unitary primary election is held, in which the candidate who receives the majority of the vote wins the mayoral position. If no candidate receives the majority, which happened in 2006, then a runoff election is held for the top two candidates from the unitary primary.

In most council-mayor systems, the voters directly vote for the mayor. These elections are usually referred to as at-large elections. However, some cities leave the role of electing a mayor in the hands of the council members. Although most mayors are elected directly by the voters, their term length may vary from city to city. In cities like Columbia, S.C., the mayor serves a term of four years, while in Houston, Texas, the mayor only serves a term of two years.

Mayors usually must reside in their city for at least one year before filing to run for the office. Some cities may require a longer residency before a person can become mayor. Campaigning during an election may be similar to national campaigns. Candidates raise large sums of money and spend it on advertising and voter contact, and at the same time strive for name recognition among voters, which is one of most important factors of wining an election. Although the breakdown of voting, primaries, length of residence and other factors may differ from national politics, basic campaigning is still very similar.

On the next page, we'll take a look at the organizational structure of a mayor's office.