Happy primary day, California (and Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, and South Dakota)! You already know that I’m going to tell you to vote* — please do, don’t let complacency about which candidate you think will win or the alleged futility of elections keep you from the polls — but what I actually want to talk about today is downticket races. Because they’re important, and people tend to ignore them, and they really need to not do that.
Many people focus on the top of the ticket during presidential election years, sometimes to the point of only casting votes for presidential candidates. This is a huge mistake. During today’s primaries, a number of states will also be running primaries for House and Senate seats (federal and state), along with local races — like officials in counties and municipalities — and some ballots will also include initiatives and referenda. You need to vote on these issues, because if you don’t, you’re not playing an active role in shaping your community.
I’m not trying to shame you here, I’m just being honest.
We’re dealing with a lot of social problems right now, on a national and local level. And local level politics are often where these problems start, with someone becoming mayor, then supervisor, then Assemblymember, and so on, gradually accruing more power, supporters, and allies in politics. Those people accrue that power because voters don’t turn out for midterms, they don’t vote in downticket races, and they don’t engage with the gory depths of the political system.
Voting on downticket races has an immediate, profound influence. It lets you prevent bigots from taking office, and vote down initiatives that could have serious, long-term, damaging repercussions. It lets you vote people who don’t know how to do their jobs, or don’t do them well, out of office. It lets you send a clear message to regional officials that you’re not happy with the direction of a board of supervisors, or a city council, or another local government entity. It lets you shape policy in a very immediate and tangible way — for example, in some areas city councilmembers appoint people to the planning commission, and therefore your vote also effectively counts as a planning commission vote.
Politics often feels very frustrating and disheartening, which is understandable, but the solution isn’t to turn away and ignore it. There are lots of resources available for researching downticket races, and organisations interested in engaging with voters who want information. At the very least, you can do a quick scan of your voter’s guide to read initiatives and commentary, and if you want a real shortcut, look at who signs on for and against various candidates and initiatives on the ballot — if someone’s endorsed by the NRA, for example, that might influence your voting decisions.
I’ve turned out for every single election since I was able to vote, including those when there was only one matter on the ballot (a school superintendent, if I recall correctly). It’s because downticket races matter a lot to me, because they shape the communities I live and work in. I can play a very direct role in local government by signaling who I want in office and how I want them to use their political clout. It’s notable that many people who complain about local government do not actually show up for elections, evidently wanting to wash their hands of responsibility in the hopes that ‘someone else will deal with it.’
That kind of attitude is how people win elections with a tiny fraction of the vote, how election turnout is so dismal, how policy is shaped by a limited number of people who don’t necessarily represent the interests of an entire community. And it is, quite frankly, really frustrating. Perhaps greater participation would result in the election of candidates I fervently dislike, but at least it would more accurately reflect the opinion of the public as a whole, rather than just a small segment of it.
People like to act jaded, as though elections don’t matter, their votes don’t count, and the whole system is broken. That’s not true. Elections do matter and their votes count. One reason why is that the system will remain broken when a very small number of people control it. By not voting in downticket races, people send a signal that they’re pretty indifferent to what happens on a local level, more focused on the hot upticket races and the symbolism of offices like the presidency.
The president definitely matters, and can do a lot of damage or advance important social programmes, but the president is not the only person who makes political decisions. It’s those people sliding into mayoral offices right now who will be proposing legislature in Congress in a few years. It’s those city council members preparing to nominate planning commission members who will permanently reshape what your community looks like. It’s those initiatives that determine the future direction of your town, whether they’re taxes or bans on certain activities or changes to civil procedure. It’s judges who will make important determinations about justice within your community, sheriffs who will be patrolling the highways and roads.
Voting in downticket races has a tremendous impact on our collective political future, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Take some time to fill your ballot out all the way, and tell others to do the same. Because tiny minorities shouldn’t get to dictate how we live.
*Incidentally, if you encounter voter suppression tactics, here’s my exhaustive guide on what to do about it.
Image: Vote, H2Woah!, Flickr