By Nina Kaufmann
November 6 is a very important date. Today, hundreds of millions of Americans will have a say at the ballot box. This time, however, it is not an obscure Electoral College they will elect. Nor do they have to choose the next president of the United States. And yet, Donald Trump is all over the place. On Twitter, in the News, and on the MAGA campaign track. All Fake. At least almost. The US midterms popular votes are about so many other things than the guy in the White House.
When America votes, the World’s eyes are usually all on Washington. Will the Republicans lose their majorities in Congress? How will the elections shape the other half of President Trump’s first term in the Oval Office? And if the Democrats would win control over the House and/or the Senate, would they try to impeach Trump?
While such questions are making the headlines, there are other elections going on all over the US that are not paid attention to in the same extent, but in fact influence the everyday lives of millions of Americans substantially. Today, on the 6th of November Americans will not only vote on blue and red candidates but also on specific issues. Citizens in 27 out of 50 states will have the opportunity to decide on a total of 155 statewide substantive issues in popular votes. In addition to these, there are great amount of local issues to be decided about at the ballot box. So, while all the heat is on Trump’s tweets about terrorists, walls, and sanctions, what are the issues that deeply and directly affect the everyday lives of many Americans?
More than 2000 referendums across the US
Out of the 155 statewide referendums to be voted on during Midterms, 64 are brought to the ballot by citizens’ initiatives. This means citizens have succeeded in gathering a certain number of signatures to qualify their proposal for the ballot box. The fundamental political rights of initiatives and referendums have been part of US democracy since the late 19th century, a change influenced by the democratic movements during what was called the Progressive Era (1890-1920). Americans called for more influence in politics and less power to the few. Reform ideas to break vested interests and enable more people power were born, with three new main tools brought into the American democratic system: initiative (for new issues), referendum (on laws adopted by a legislature) and recall (to redo an election between election days). These tools made it possible for voters to propose or repeal legislation as well as remove local officials from office by petition. Since the beginning of the 20th century, US direct democracy has enabled 2231 citizens initiated referendums at a state level.
Marijuana, democracy, renewables, and abortion
For the 2018 elections, some issues are to be seen on ballots more than others. The question of drug legalization has been a popular topic during the last decade and is a notable trend in the upcoming midterms with seven proposals in five states related to medical and recreational marijuana. Another trend is linked to elections policies. In 19 states there are measures on the ballot concerning election restrictions, voting requirements, ballot access, and campaign finance. This shows that the initiative and referendum rights can be used by voters not only to put important issues on the ballot but also to shape the democratic system itself. Other issues that are on the ballot are taxes, abortion, renewable energy, healthcare funding, crime victim rights, and minimum wage.
A lot of dollars in California, Nevada, and Florida
As always when it comes to political campaigns in the US, a lot of money is involved. In the top for finance activity surrounding the 2018 elections is California, with over 342 million dollars in contributions. Nevada comes next with a bit over 121 million, and on third place is Florida with just under 100. The money involved in the campaigns does not only show how funding is a crucial part of the American political system, but it’s also an indicator of in which states the initiative and referendum rights are most vital. California is clearly one of the top states when it comes to direct democracy with 66 citizen-initiated issues filed for election day. Issues that are to be seen on the California ballots are among others questions concerning fuel tax, millionaire’s tax, possibilities for local governments to regulate rents and more money to water-related infrastructure and environmental projects.
As we can see, the United States democratic system is not just about the President or the parties, but rather far from it. While the White House may have a less positive effect on most things these days, democracy at the state and local level is very much alive in the US. However, this year’s midterm elections also offer an insight into a problematic feature of American politics: in many states mainly Republican politicians try to make it harder to become a registered voter, especially for minority groups, which often have a lot of hurdles to overwin in order to be eligible on voting day. While candidates and parties on both sides of the aisle may have little interest to fix this problem, the direct democratic rights offer civil groups to put such issues on the ballot. Fundamental democratic values in US politics cannot be saved by simply pointing at the White House. It is time to fix American democracy by using the tools that it provides. It is time to realize that all Americans – not just Trump and his colleagues – decide on the future of the US.
Nina Kaufmann is a student at the Peace & Development Program. When she’s not studying you’ll probably find her listening to radio talk shows or standing in the kitchen with a glass of red wine – preferably in combination. She loves good discussions, long train rides, freshly ground coffee and really sharp pencils. In the future, she wants to learn to do a proper headstand and have at least four morning newspapers.