If the Presidential Election Has You Down, Go Down Ballot

I’ve been hearing from a lot of people about how depressed they are at having to choose between one presidential candidate who scares them and another presidential candidate whom they loathe. The worst thing about it is the feeling of impotence in the face of titanic, intractable problems. But I have found my zen while staring into the abyss of electoral politics:

  1. I don’t live in a swing state, so my presidential vote very likely doesn’t matter;
  2. There are a bunch of down ballot races that are also really important and I can actually impact!

Here is a breakdown of my electoral zen, may it help you in your time of darkness (likely strike the night of the first presidential debate).

Why My Focus Is Down Ballot

It’s a tragic reality of the electoral college system – if you don’t live in a  swing state, your presidential vote is largely irrelevant. No one likes to hear that. I don’t even like saying it, because I do believe that having leadership accountable to constituents is preferable to aristocracy, monarchy, and dictatorship.

Here is a handy flow chart indicating whether you should fret about the presidential election. Source: Zachary Stark-Macmillan

However, Massachusetts is solidly Democratic, and my vote won’t change that. Since 1960, Massachusetts electoral votes have only gone for the Republican presidential candidate twice (both times for Ronald Reagan)*. Barring Hillary Clinton being exposed as an Illuminati Lizard Alien, the Bay State is certain to go for her in November.

Undeniable proof that Clinton is a Reptilian. Source: reddit.com

Sure, this November I’m going to vote in the presidential election. But my focus, and what I get really excited about, are the down-ballot races: Mayor, City Council, State Legislature, even County Sheriff. Those are the races where only a few thousand people vote in total, and partisanship and ideological divides matter much less.

The voters actually know the candidates, often personally, and party affiliation alone isn’t enough to win support. Knocking on doors, making phone calls, and going to pie eating contests and county fairs are the kinds of things that make or break an election. I’ve volunteered for local campaigns, and it’s really cool to go door knocking alongside the candidate and chat with them about the issues that matter to you. That’ll just never happen at the presidential level.

The Power of the Local Government

The federal government gets a lot of media attention, and for good reason. Around 20% of GDP goes toward federal taxes. But state and local spending are estimated to be around 9% and 10% of GDP, respectively – that’s a lot of money and decision-making being wielded by state and local officials!

Federal (red), state (green), and local (grey) spending as a percent of GDP. Source: usgovernmentspending.com

In fact, back when I worked in the district office of a congressman, about half the time someone would call in with an issue which we would have to refer to state or local officials. Here are some examples of things your state legislators or city councilors deal with, and that you might care about:

  1. Healthcare (ie MassHealth)
  2. Welfare
  3. Affordable Housing
  4. Sustainability
  5. Zoning
  6. Parks and open space
  7. Public Safety
  8. Prison Reform
  9. Traffic Safety
  10. K-12 Education
  11. Post-graduate education
  12. The cost of a building permit

OK, the list could go on for a long time – the point is, states and towns decide a lot of the stuff that a lot of people care about. It’s worth paying attention to who’s making those decisions.

Mildly Wonky Poli-Sci Section

Diving a little bit deeper, state and local government wield a lot of authority by design. That’s because of the 10th amendment to the constitution, which states:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

That’s right – any authority not specifically delegated to the federal government in the constitution is reserved to the states. Put another way, the authority of the federal government is derived by the consent of the 50 states, which otherwise would have total authority over themselves.

Furthermore, Massachusetts is what’s called a “Home Rule” state. The state has decided that anything not already regulated by the state or federal government is subject to the authority of the municipality. This gives cities and towns a lot of latitude to pass ordinances and bylaws on things that the state hasn’t gotten around to yet, or just doesn’t want to deal with. One example is whether it’s legal to park in bike lanes – in Cambridge and Boston it’s a ticketable offense, but most other towns have no specific rule about it.

The point is, interesting stuff is happening at the local level (like this 22 year old who just won the Amherst seat in the State House of Representatives). So instead of worrying about an election that I have virtually no influence on, I’m going down ballot! John Oliver agrees, and if he says it, it must be true.


*As an aside, the idea that an individual’s actions are largely irrelevant is one of the foundations of social science – that really it’s larger social systems and trends which shape things like national politics.



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