“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but inform their discretion.”
— Thomas Jefferson.
Americans will write a new chapter Tuesday in Jefferson’s theory of the safe depository of ultimate powers. Millions already have written their part, having cast early ballots in a pandemic-induced stampede of ballots by mail.
By early measures this could be a year in which people embrace the ballot, in record numbers, as more powerful than either protests or violence, although many seem to be bracing against both of those as postelection possibilities.
But, judging by what I see on social media, Jefferson’s remedy for the unenlightened is needed. A lot of people seem to be missing the point.
Let me inform your discretion, in Jefferson’s words. Despite all the passionate arguments, threats, insults and anger, the race for president is not the most important thing on your ballot this year.
Local races and ballot measures have a bigger impact on your life and the nation. Here are five reasons:
First, this is a year ending in zero. That means the census is being taken. That, in turn, means it will be followed by politicians redrawing political boundaries. In most states, this is done by the legislature, and the party in control makes the decisions. Parties that control the legislature and the governor’s office have little to check this power.
Why does this matter? Lawmakers draw boundaries that help their party win future elections, in their states and in Washington.
Austin Chambers, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, told NBC News that a change in as few as 42 state legislative seats on Tuesday could, in turn, change as many as 136 seats in Congress, an estimate not disputed by the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Republicans cleaned up in state legislatures 10 years ago, taking almost 700 seats and majorities in 20 state chambers away from Democrats. David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, told NBC this resulted in Republicans winning more House seats in Washington than their party’s share of the vote in the next three elections.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Republicans control the legislatures and governor’s offices in 21 states, while Democrats control 15, and 13 states are divided. In Nebraska, lawmakers are nonpartisan.
Second, the president hasn’t been the major decision-maker in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, your governor has. The first shelter-in-place order came from Calif. Gov. Gavin Newsom. Governors in New York, Ohio and Indiana soon did the same.
In some states, such as Utah, county and city mayors and council members have made the tough decisions. Salt Lake County imposed a mask mandate fairly early. In Provo, the City Council overrode the mayor’s veto of a mask ordinance. Presidential candidates may spar over whether Washington should do more in the pandemic, but states are likely to remain largely in charge.
Third, while you pay income, payroll and investment taxes to Washington, local governments can require you to pay income, sales and property taxes, as well as a variety of fees. These vary widely from state to state, likely because they are far more subject to public scrutiny than federal taxes.
In Utah, lawmakers have tried twice to enact sweeping tax reforms. Once they were thwarted by lobbyists representing business interests. The second time, voters forced a retreat by threatening a petition drive for a repeal vote.
Fourth, state and local school boards do more to affect families in states than much that happens in Washington. The pandemic has triggered many varied school policies, with some students forced to learn from home and others wearing masks in-person in classrooms.
Fifth, ballot measures often have a direct impact on taxes or public policies, and your vote has a greater impact on these than any vote you cast in a national election. Utah’s Amendment G is a good example, as it would dramatically change how schools are funded.
The choice for president is, of course, important. Any nation that would endow a single person as commander in chief of the world’s most powerful military or as the spokesman of what Theodore Roosevelt called the bully pulpit should consider the choice carefully.
But of the voting public, a more recent politician, Adlai Stevenson, said, “As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the lawgivers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end.”
Anyone who frequents social media may cringe at that thought. I prefer to trust in Jefferson’s vision. However, I do cringe at how many people have lost focus of the races that affect them most.