It’s midterm election season, which means an onslaught of frantic emails and late night TV jokes about how no one cares about the midterm elections. Without a presidential race at the top of the ticket (though frighteningly we’re already having the 2016 conversation), a lot of people are content to let this one pass them by. As with most elections, there’s a lot at stake, and the results will directly impact our lives. I could go on about control of the Senate, extremely close gubernatorial races and state legislatures that have passed everything from Stand Your Ground to draconian voter ID laws. For the sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on some of the issues on the ballot around the country, and opportunities we have to beat back offensive laws or proactively be more bold than our governments are willing to be on their own.
Tackling mass incarceration. It’s no secret that our country has a shameful problem with mass incarceration, as brilliantly captured by Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow. Politicians are often far too afraid of being seen as “soft on crime” to take the necessary steps to address it. (We’re even seeing the racist “Willie Horton” trope rear its ugly head again this election.) California has a unique problem, operating under a court order to reduce prison overcrowding. The offered solutions have been disappointing thus far, including continuing a disturbing trend of relying on the private prison industry. Voters can choose a better way forward by voting for Prop 47, which would reclassify 6 nonviolent crimes (including drug possession) as misdemeanors, and redirect funds that would have been spent incarcerating people into schools and treatment programs.
Raising the minimum wage. Activists tired of waiting for Congress to raise the federal minimum wage are taking matters into their own hands. A lot of cities and states have been leading the way, and this November at least 4 states and several cities will let voters decide whether people get paid a living wage. I for one will be voting for Oakland’s Measure FF, which will raise wages for 78% of workers of color and 25 to 30% of workers overall.
Fetal personhood returns. Anti-choice activists have worked for years to enshrine legal personhood for fetuses, under all different guises. Prop 67, the current incarnation in Colorado (voters have rejected two previous versions) is deceptively marketed as focusing solely on “fetal homicide,” but it could open the door to bans on abortion and certain types of birth control. Measure 1 in North Dakota is more straightforward, and would have a similar effect.
Clearing the way for laws that restrict abortion access. Abortion rights have been under attack around the country, but surprisingly Tennessee has managed to beat many of them back. Their state constitution includes an explicit protection of abortion rights, a stronger one than the federal constitution, and due to that the State Supreme Court has struck down harsh anti-abortion laws. Measure 1 would change that, altering the constitution to read “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”
These are just a few of many initiatives and outcomes of the November election that could changes people’s lives for the better or worse. I hear a lot of people talk about throwing their hands up at the whole enterprise in the age of the Koch brothers’ pouring billions of dollars into our elections. It’s easy to understand getting cynical, but it’s just not acceptable. Yes, the system sucks, yes a lot of discouraging things are happening. The dire circumstances and the seeming hopelessness we are facing are nothing compared to that faced by many social justice activists that came before us (hello, civil rights movement. also, how long did it take women to get the right to vote?). We don’t have much standing to complain about the status quo if we aren’t trying to change it. Voting is the bare minimum, and I hope everyone reading this will vote in two weeks. Even better if you donate and volunteer.
Voting is also only one step in the process, and it doesn’t solve all of our problems. But it can make the environment we’re organizing in year-round more conducive to progressive change, and sometimes the will of the people can take us places where politicians are afraid to go.