Following two long, bitter primaries, and back to back nominating conventions, pundits and newscasters everywhere are focusing in on the Presidential election as their center for political discussion and debate. However while all eyes are on the Trump-Clinton showdown, an incredibly important set of elections is being overlooked. State legislative elections. In the United States voter turnout rate is already dismally low in Presidential elections, and if you go further down-ballot, things get even worse. In fact, according to FairVote.org, in the 2014 midterm elections, some states experienced voter turnout as low as 28.3% (yes Texas, I'm looking at you). However, these elections are some of the most important, not because they elect Senators and Congressmen, but because they play a pivotal role in the election of one of the most misunderstood and undervalued institutions in our nation, the state legislature. So, before you step into a voting booth this November, or decide that it's a waste of time, here are a few reasons to pay attention to your local state legislative elections.
1. They have more power than you realize.
Although usually seen as an institution whose most important task is the selection of an official state bird, state legislatures do in fact have a lot of power. For example, according to a 2013 survey by the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), the 50 states and District of Columbia collectively raised and spent over $1.1 trillion dollars in tax revenue. This is a huge amount of taxation and spending that undergoes hardly any scrutiny from voters allowing state governments to get away with spending on nearly any project that wasn't the focus of a gubernatorial race or a governor's campaign. Furthermore, state legislatures are even endowed with special Constitutional powers concerning the passing and ratification of Constitutional Amendments. Article V of the U.S. Constitution dictates that two-thirds of states legislatures must ratify an amendment before it can be added to the Constitution. It also grants them the power to demand that Congress call another Constitutional Convention (whose delegates have historically been chosen by, you guessed it, state legislatures). In fact, the defining moment in the fight for the 19th amendment and women's suffrage was not in some Congressional or Presidential action or speech. It occurred when Harry T. Burn, a 24-year-old member of the Tennessee General Assembly ended a long impasse and cast the deciding vote for Tennessee's ratification of the 19th amendment. With such notable constitutional powers and such large budgets and tax revenues, state legislatures are more than worthy of some serious news coverage and attention.
2. They pass A LOT of legislation.
During this season of bitter political polarization and debate there does seem to be one truth that all Americans can agree on, Congress is getting nothing done. And to a large degree, it's true. The previous Congressional session was one of the least productive of all time only narrowly avoiding inheriting the title of "Do-Nothing Congress". However in contrast state legislatures have been churning out legislation in droves. In 2014 state legislatures passed over 24,000 bills into law coming out to an average of around 430 per state. That's over double the number of laws passed by Congress during the same period of time. It's clear that whatever gridlock has beset Congress has not entirely been passed onto the states and that if you're looking for where the real governing of this nation occurs, you might want to look at your local state capital.
3. They are where many "big issues" get decided.
Despite being thought of a place for petty discussions over whether or not to build X bike path or establish Y state memorial site state legislatures really do discuss some of the most important issues in politics today, and often those discussion spiral into national outcomes. For example, even Mitt Romney himself has admitted that his Massachusetts state healthcare reform bill know as Romneycare was the inspiration and stepping stone to Obamacare and the Affordable Care Act. Furthermore the discussion over same-sex marriage was largely shaped by state actions in states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey, many of which passed laws allowing civil unions or calling for referendums which struck down bans on same-sex marriage. This precognition of state governments seems likely to continue with many states already leading the way on issues such as legalization of marijuana and paid family leave.
4. They decide who gets to elect who.
Yes you read that right. State legislatures decided who participates in voting in which election. How? Through a process called gerrymandering. Essentially since state legislatures can draw the boundaries for Congressional and other races they can manipulate outcomes. It can vary in complexity but in short it allows for a state that could be evenly split 50-50 between parties to send significantly more representatives of one party to Congress than the other. Usually whichever party happened to be in control of the state legislature during the drawing of district lines.
Through processes like this state legislatures are able to exert and unwieldy amount of influence of Congressional races all over the nation. Although a permanent fix to gerrymandering most likely will require a 3rd party commission or a computerized algorithm to draw district lines, until then the best thing you can do to ensure fair elections is pay attention to who you elect on the state level and what district lines they draw.
5. Your vote has a lot more weight.
Now this one is relatively simple. In a local or state election your vote simply counts for more. For one there isn't any electoral math that makes your vote have no impact if your party isn't in the majority they way there is in the Presidential election. But most importantly state races are often very close. In fact in 2015 a Mississippi state House of Representatives race was literally an exact tie and came down to a literal drawing of straws. And hundreds of other races across the country have ended in tiny margins. Your vote will rarely decide the outcome of a national election, however you could greatly affect the course of your state and by extension the United States as a whole by voting, and more importantly voting while informed, in a state election.
To find out all of your local elected officials from the national stage to local levels visit here.