National media is entirely preoccupied by Joe Biden and Donald Trump’s ongoing barroom brawl. But there are 95,000 other seats across America up for grabs in our local towns and cities; in fact, 96% of all the votes you cast between now and November 3 will be in what’s called “down-ballot” races, which appear not on the top of your ballot but below. If you want to effect change—right here, right now, right in your neighborhood—you need to punch the boxes (or color in the circles) for contests that garner less press.
Aviva Rosman who founded BallotReady, an interactive app that provides any voter who types in a ZIP code with transparent information about every candidate on the ballot, says “When we started, we were told that people don’t care about down-ballot elections.That’s not true. It’s just that it’s so difficult to learn enough about them. If you have the information, you care.”
Why Should You Care About Local Elections?
But why should you care to learn about and vote in down-ballot races? Does it really matter who is your county prosecutor or your sheriff or your district’s school board members? Why take the time to learn about those seemingly trivial contests?
Let’s take some examples, starting right below the presidential race and working our way down.
In New Hampshire, Governor Chris Sununu has vetoed bills to raise the minimum wage, to tighten gun restrictions, and to enact paid family and medical leave. If that’s your stance on those issues, vote for Sununu. If you feel otherwise, fill in your ballot for Sununu’s Democratic rival, Dan Feltes.
In Texas, 16 seats in the State Senate are on the ballot in November, which increases the chances for changes in representation. What’s at stake? According to the Texas Tribune, this year “new political boundaries will need to be drawn to account for the state’s booming population.” Those boundaries are really important; there’s a history in Texas of racial-gerrymandering, or preventing Black and Latino voters from electing their preferred candidates. How can you learn about the Texas state legislature contest? It’s easy: In addition to the BallotReady app, there’s a great website called Ballotpedia, which offers clear information about every race in the country and the platforms of every contender.
Still don’t care about down-ballot races?
In Missouri's 1st Congressional District, Cory Bush is running for U.S. Congress. A former nurse and pastor, she was moved to activism after the riots in Ferguson following the police-shooting death of Michael Brown. She says, "I've struggled paycheck to paycheck asking ‘Where's our progress?' and as a Black mom, I'm sick of having to say 'Just make it home safely' ... If elected, she will be the first Black woman elected to Congress from Missouri.
(How did I find that quote? Easy-peasy. Typed “Cory Bush” into the search box on Ballotpedia.)
Not convinced yet? Let’s go further down-ballot.
In Pennsylvania, the Attorney General is up for re-election. What does an Attorney General do? While their responsibilities vary a bit from state to state, typically they act as public advocates in child support disputes. They also propose bills, enforce environmental laws, operate victim compensation programs and litigate civil suits to represent your interests. Hitting closer to home, right? Incumbent Josh Shapiro has taken action on the opioid crisis and suing priests for child sexual assault. Wouldn’t you like to know his challenger Heather Heidelbaugh’s views on these issues?
Is your city having a mayoral election? Mayors have lots of power, depending on the state, and make appointments that affect our lives in specific ways. For example, in Newark, New Jersey, the mayor, currently Ras Baraka, appoints the Director of the Water Department, typically an engineer. Last year, in the midst of a health crisis that showed alarmingly high levels of lead in the city’s water supply, including school buildings, Baraka appointed Kareem Adeem to head that department at a salary of $130,000 a year. Previously, Adeem served four years for conspiring to sell five kilos of cocaine and never got beyond high school.
Also on your ballot: Propositions, sometimes called referendums or questions, that let voters give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on controversial state issues which will sometimes directly affect your state taxes or your lifestyle. You get to decide. This year Michigan, North Dakota and New Jersey have questions about whether they should legalize marijuana for recreational use. Nevada’s ballot includes a question about whether to keep a “tampon tax” or eliminate extra fees on feminine hygiene products. In Massachusetts, there’s a proposition on transgender rights. Do you care? Better vote down-ballot.
And then there’s school board member races, often at the very bottom of the ballot. Yet, if you care about local education, these races are critical. Why? School boards have a lot of power. They select and evaluate district superintendents, decide on local budgets tied to your local taxes, weigh in what your child learns in school and what extracurricular and sports programs are offered. Hey, they even approve school calendars that determine when your kids have spring break. (Maybe you’d like to run yourself! Any adult citizen over age 18 is eligible.)
The non-partisan Cook Political Report is clear on the importance of these low-profile contests, explaining, “they can have a transformative effect on politics and policy on the state and local level.”
Laura Waters writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for all. She is based in New Jersey, where she and her husband have raised four children. She recently finished serving 12 years ...