When voters enter the voting booth on Election Day they will face a number of choices for local and state offices, and public questions and referendums below the options available for President and Vice President. While the presidential contest commands the attention of the national media, and television is flooded with commercials for the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent Donald Trump, the public will also be asked to weigh-in on choices down ballot.
One of the most misunderstood features of our democratic system is that all power is not vested in the federal government. While the Constitution cedes important powers and functions to the executive branch and Congress, states have significant power and authority over the day-to-day lives of residents. You would never know that given the manner in which the presidency is elevated in the news media and in popular culture. The “federal government as all powerful” narrative belies the authority of governors and state legislatures, and the importance of local offices.
It is why the races that are down ballot, and the referenda on the ballot, are critically important for the public to cast their votes on as they have ground floor impact on their quality of life. There will be races for local school boards, municipal council, county prosecutor, state legislature and judges that voters will have to consider on November 8. And there will be public questions that will determine if state and local governments will spend money on parks, new schools, criminal justice reform, highways and mass transit. They all have a tremendous public impact and entail spending tax dollars to achieve their desired effect. It’s why voters work against their own interests when they only pay attention to the top offices up for consideration.
In Massachusetts voters are being asked to consider Question 2 on the ballot, which lifts the cap on publicly funded but privately managed charter schools. If voters approve the question, the state will be allowed up to 12 new or expanded charter schools per year. This is a very important question for urban school districts like Boston where there is a long waiting list for charter schools because of a spending cap. Currently Massachusetts can add another 42 charter schools before it reaches the cap of 120 charter schools. However, the fiscal constraints on urban school districts means those schools will be opened and operated outside the city. As should be expected Question 2 is inciting people on both sides of the issue; those who favor charters and others who are calling for greater investments in traditional public schools. Question 2 is being considered in the shadow of the NAACP’s recent call for a moratorium on the expansion charter schools across the country. Though the nation’s oldest civil rights organization has taken this position, many of the strongest proponents of charter schools are Black parents who are clamoring for a better learning environment for their children than what many traditional public schools provide.
In Indiana, there is a different issue facing voters in Marion County. At stake is a public referendum to fund mass transit improvements in the county. A faith-based coalition, the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network (IndyCan) has been running a campaign to support the referendum and in particular improved bus service that will provide residents in poor neighborhoods access to employment opportunities. The referendum calls for an increase in county income taxes by 0.25 percent, 25 cents per $100, to raise the $56 million for the city bus service. The Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce is also supporting the initiative, citing the interest of area businesses in getting reliable transportation for their employees. Opposition to the referendum is coming from a counter-group “Stop the Red Line” that claims the transit referendum is shortsighted and calling for the investment in more innovative transportation options.
In New Jersey, voters will be asked to consider a controversial referendum to expand gaming in the state. Currently, casino gambling is restricted to Atlantic City. The famous resort city is the only place in the state where gaming is allowed, a special status granted the city in 1976. Atlantic City in the past decade has been affected by the opening of casinos in Connecticut, neighboring New York and Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware. Making matters worse has been the closing of several casinos on the famous Boardwalk, including a property that the state bailed out. Where Atlantic City was once the only option outside of Las Vegas and Reno for gamblers, new gaming halls in close proximity have squeezed the resort destination. As if that were not enough, embattled Republican Governor Chris Christie has rejected the city’s recovery plan and is calling for a state takeover of Atlantic City. While several areas of the state are vying for casinos, the city of Newark and the Meadowlands sports complex in the northern part of the state are eager for the public’s approval of the referendum. The sports complex is home to the New York Giants and New York Jets football franchises, and a top-tier horseracing track. In recent years, horse racing revenue has experienced a dramatic downturn so proponents of the referendum also see it as means to rescue a dying industry by helping to prop up the Meadowlands track.
Another ballot question in New Jersey that is embroiled in controversy is a measure to fund the state’s transportation trust fund. By the state’s constitution, transportation debt must be backed by dedicated funds. Lawmakers in Trenton have failed to provide a dedicated revenue stream as required and the result has been crumbling infrastructure – roads and bridges - in one of the nation’s most heavily trafficked states. A compromise over a revenue scheme was recently met and the state legislature passed a 23-cent gas tax that Governor Christie signed into law. The ballot question asks voters to approve locking the gas tax as a dedicated source of funding for transportation projects. Confusion reigns as many voters think they are voting on the gas tax and that a “no” vote will kill the fuel surcharge. New Jersey, prior to the adoption of the gas tax, had some of the nation’s lowest gas prices along with a prohibition against self-serve stations. A “no” vote on the public question will simply reject using the gas tax as a dedicated revenue stream, it will not eliminate the fuel surcharge.
On the ballot in Dayton Ohio is Issue 9 that if approved will result in a .25 percent earnings tax increase that will be used to fund universal preschool for all 4-year old children and support police, emergency services and infrastructure projects. A “Yes” vote on Amendment T in Colorado will remove an exception to the prohibition on slavery that allows criminals to be held in involuntary servitude if convicted of a crime.
In Missouri, there is a Voter ID ballot measure that the faith-based community and civil rights activists are working to defeat. The measure asks voters to consider an amendment to Article VII of the Missouri Constitution that stipulates “A person seeking to vote in person in public elections may be required by general law to identify himself or herself and verify his or her qualifications as a citizen of the United States of America and a resident of the state of Missouri by providing election officials with a form of identification, which may include valid government-issued photo identification. Exceptions to the identification requirement may also be provided for by general law.” Given the many racially sensitive issues in the state, from the protests of students at the University of Missouri that led to the president’s resignation to the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, the Voter ID push is being viewed by many in the state’s Black community as the latest effort to violate their rights.
Voters in California, a state known for its public referenda, voters have several to consider on Election Day. Proposition 55 calls for increased taxes on the state’s wealthiest residents to help fund health care and education. Proposition 56 raises the tobacco tax to fund health care for immigrants in a state with a large immigrant population. And Proposition 57 calls for removing prosecutors’ power to try youth as adults and expands early release programs.
These are just a sampling of the types of issues voters will be asked to consider on Election Day. Before going to the polls on November 8 voters should carefully review their sample ballots to make certain they are fully aware of all of the offices and issues they are being asked to vote upon. Many states require “plain language” summaries of ballot questions to make them easier for the public to understand. If that is not a requirement in your state, you should call your local Board of Election if you need a further explanation of the public questions on your ballot. You can also call your local League of Women Voters office because the organization provides voter education materials to help the public sift through the issues that appear on the local ballot. Do not pass over the ballot questions because they have serious implications for your local community.