Want your vote to matter more? Pay attention to local elections

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman & Richard W. Sharp

Concerned that Republicans control all three branches of the federal government and are taking steps to cement a permanent power advantage for a small and shrinking group of constituents? Then this post is for you.  Trump is not a king and has had to learn, in the courts, in the states, and in public that his powers are limited.1 Likewise, the federal government is not the only authority: its powers are limited and substantial responsibilities are left to the states. You are a citizen of more than one government, at the federal, state, and local levels; and those other governments are powerful tools of resistance.

If democracy is really built from below, why aren’t more people paying attention to local and state-level elections and the politics of their immediate surroundings?  Because, yes, the swirling maelstrom of news around the White House is the world’s greatest attention-o-tron and it’s really hard to look away, even when you should also pay attention to other things, we know. It’s not too late, though, to start paying attention.  Because political change can indeed come from the bottom up.

So what’s up for grabs in November? 36 Governorships and 87 of 99 state legislative chambers are on the ballot.2 Plus a way-too-many-to-count-them-all number of local offices and ballot measures.


Why go local?

Rebellious states both really annoy the Donald and are an effective bulwark against federal legislation, regardless of which party is in charge. 

Without cooperation from the states it is not possible to install a national policy. Obamacare never reached all those it could have due to resistance from Republican-led states, primarily the 17 states that have resisted Medicaid expansion.  On the other side of the aisle, California has been an environmental protection leader, using its special status (roughly one bazillion potential car buyers) to set strict fuel economy standards. The state also recently passed a net neutrality measure. Facing rebellion, the current government has all-but abandoned the no longer expedient “states’ rights” argument and sued California to overrule its net neutrality measure (and continued the EPA’s rollback of fuel standards). 

In addition to its defense of environmental legislation, the State of California and various municipal governments in the Golden State have enacted multiple direct rebukes of the administration’s immigration policies, from declaring itself a “sanctuary state” to mayors tipping off residents about impending ICE activity.  The Trump administration sued the state (unsuccessfully). 

Other states, e.g., Washington and New York, have adopted a strategy with more of a legal than legislative focus, suing the federal government to halt policies like the Muslim ban and to prosecute state-level crimes of administration and campaign officials such as Paul Manafort as they come to light from investigations into corruption.  The district courts in the state of New York, not the Feds, have been the single most effective line of attack on the Russia Front.  Remember the raid on Michael Cohen’s offices, hotel, and house?  Not the Mueller Investigation but U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.   New York City and state officials are also beginning to look into the Trump family’s financial irregularities.  Important note: Trump has the power of pardon for federal crimes….but his get-out-of-jail-free card doesn’t work on state cases.

The legislation and executive actions that will most likely affect you (yes, you, personally) most quickly are on local and state ballots. Either ballot measures (if you’re in a state that has such direct voting on legislation) and/or the legislators who will enact local and state laws are on your ballot, right now.  Do you know who they are?  Think of things like marijuana legalization, building that transit system expansion, proposals to solve widespread housing crises, water infrastructure for the next drought, levee maintenance, and the like. 

Tired of the tribalism of Washington?  Local elections are also one of the last bastions of American non-partisanship.  It’s no accident that the smaller-scale you go in the US Political system, the higher number of independent and minority-party candidates you’ll find running….and winning.  Sick of both major parties?  Vote for other candidates for your Zoning Commission (and not feel like your vote is “wasted”).


Conclusion

Little known fact: there’s a lot to vote for in a midterm!

A lot of that action happens down-ticket and a lot of that action will directly and immediately affect the way you live in your community. In case you missed it above, we’ll restate: 36 Governorships and 87 state legislative chambers are on the ballot.

Not going to vote because your vote doesn’t count in a highly polarized nation? Those strong party preferences don’t apply when the candidates for mayor are all nonpartison former members of the board of supervisors. Not going to vote because nothing’s going to change in D.C. no matter who is in charge? Let’s see, same sex marriage and the liberalization of marijuana laws are some recent big changes that sure didn’t come out of D.C.; those were state issues first.  Not going to vote because Republicans have locked in control of the federal system for a generation? Remember that the states are champions of the resistance on issues from civil liberties, to climate change. Ready to have an impact? Go Vote!3


Notes:
1  There’s a nice consistent M.O. here, bumbling overreach and then retraction, e.g. Muslim ban 1. And Muslim Ban 2.^
2  Fun Fact: Nebraska is the only unicameral state.^
3  …and bring your friends.^

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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