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The Importance of the Down-Ballot Vote

In the dystopian political nightmare that is our current presidential election, it is easy to think only about the presidential election itself. Presidential elections are sexier and more visible than other elections under normal circumstances, and in the current situation, trying to figure out how to vote in a way that will not rouse us from sleep with stabs of regret every night the rest of our lives can be a diverting pastime. I have heard many people say that their solution will be simply not to vote, a solution that I myself find tempting each time I hear either candidate open their mouths. However, we must go to the polls on Election Day, and we must do so not merely out of duty or to pick the lesser of two evils, but because the presidency is not the only position which will be decided in November. In fact, the hopelessness of the presidential race makes the down-ballot vote, in some ways, even more essential this year than it usually is.

Generally speaking, the down-ballot vote is terribly important regardless of who is running for president. State and local elections can be even more important for the individual voter than the election for the presidency, since state and local officials often have a more immediate impact on their constituents than national officials do. The president and congress may make national policy, but very often in the domestic arena it is state and local officials who must decide how to implement the stated policy locally, and increasingly whether to defy the policy altogether. Regardless of which lunatic we end up voting into the Oval Office, the decisions the president will make about immigration and refugee policy, education, and social policy (concerning marriage, gender identity, etc.) will all have to go through state and local government before we the voters actually experience their effects. Additionally, officials lower on the totem pole can defy the federal government, as state officials in several states have defied our current president regarding healthcare and allowing in Syrian refugees, to take two examples.

This is not to say that we should vote for someone based on their willingness to be devout contrarians and obstructionists any time they don’t get their political way. Mere obstinacy does not to political paradise lead; just ask the Republican congress that has spent the last eight years trying and failing to win favor by obstructing Obama at every turn. Whatever one may think of Obama’s legislation, the fact is that Republicans were not able to oppose it effectively by mere stone-walling. The greater successes at resisting national policies they did not like came by negotiating ways to opt out of or modify the policies at the state level, such as when multiple states modified or opted out of the federal government’s default healthcare marketplace. Again, whatever one thinks about the wisdom of doing so, the result was that people in those states got some leeway in conforming to federal law as a result of negotiation and tactful legislation both in congress and then at the state level. Thus it is important that the electorate look for capable and (ideally) experienced leaders at the state, local, and congressional levels who understand how to get things done even in an unfavorable climate. Politicians in these positions who are more closely connected to the constituencies than national officials can successfully mitigate national policies to some degree in favor of their constituencies, provided that they know what they are doing. Bureaucracy, skillfully employed, can be a protection to the citizens under it.

There exists in this election another consideration when voting for congressional seats, one that is unique to our current situation. It is much more likely than usual that whichever candidate is ultimately selected, they will do something within their four years as president that will make them impeachable. Hillary Clinton has demonstrated a Nixonian disregard for the rules. Whether she is ignorant of them through apathy, as she has claimed to the FBI, or through willfulness, she has proven herself to be untrustworthy throughout her political career. One does not have to believe any of the rightist conspiracy theories to see that. And Donald Trump is potentially worse. While he has not yet held public office, we can tell both from what he says and how he has conducted himself in his private business that we should be wary of him should he head the government. His statements about wanting to muzzle the press and commit war crimes alone are worth watchfulness on our part, and the ways in which he has misled and taken advantage of investors and customers in the past show that he has as little regard for rules as Clinton does.

With a strong likelihood that the next President will do something deserving of impeachment, we must do what we can as voters to put people in Congress who will hold the President accountable for their actions, whoever it might be and regardless of party affiliation. The next four years will be critical in determining how much more the President and the Supreme Court (to which the President holds the keys) will be able to erode Congress’ power, regardless of which candidate is elected. It is in everyone’s best interests—conservatives, liberals, and everyone in between—to elect a strong Congress who can at least stem the tide of ever-growing executive power.

Unfortunately, Congressional seats, state positions, and local authorities are not nearly as sexy as the presidency, especially in a year when following the presidential election is like watching Failblog videos on a loop on YouTube. Educating ourselves about state and local elections is difficult and time-consuming, and frankly quite boring when you get right down to it. Most years it is easy to vote one party straight down the ticket, or vote for the person who is anti-establishment simply because they are anti-establishment, or the incumbent because they are incumbent. However, this election more than ever, it is critical that more of the electorate pay attention to the down-ballot votes. We need a government that at all levels will filter or resist actions and policies of the executive branch that do not have the national interest in mind, and who can effectively wield the weapons of bureaucracy toward that end. A strong down-ballot vote will not solve America’s problems, but it might help to redeem and mitigate the unfortunate viable choices we have at the top of the ballot.

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