This year in particular, it’s easy to get swept away in the breathless coverage of the presidential race—Did you hear what Trump said? Is pneumonia going to cost Clinton the race? Miss Finland? More emails? Really?
If that’s all you’ve been paying attention to, 2016 could be one of the most surprising elections of your life. After November 8, medical marijuana could be legal in a majority of the country. America could elect its first openly bisexual governor. The food-stamp program could be dismantled. A tax on carbon could get enacted—without much support from environmentalists. Washington, D.C., could be one step closer to statehood. House Republicans could see their black membership completely wiped out.
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For all the oxygen sucked up by the presidential race, it’s often these less-prominent elections that have the most immediate and lasting impact on American lives. Sometimes, they can spur national trends—like Hawai‘i’s first-in-the-nation initiative banning same-sex marriage—or inspire a backlash that remakes American politics—as happened with California’s hard-line anti-immigration Prop 187. Other times, they can aid in the snowballing of a movement, creating enough momentum behind a reform that it’s adopted nationally (as seems to be happening with marijuana amid an avalanche of state and local legalization efforts).
Here is a peek at some of the many issues at stake his election — ones that have nothing to do with Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but which have the potential to reshape America in the years to come.
1. Medical marijuana will probably be legal in a majority of states—and the number of states with legalized recreational pot could double
As medical marijuana wins over skeptics—even conservatives like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are warming to the idea—it continues to get support in the voting booth. This year, the issue scored a place on ballots in Florida, North Dakota and Arkansas, and a “yes” in any one of those places would legalize medical marijuana in a majority of U.S. states. Given the trend of the past decade, it wouldn’t be surprising if recreational marijuana followed suit.
Right now, recreational marijuana is legal in four states. But with four more states voting on marijuana-related ballot initiatives this year, pot could soon be legal for an additional 33 million Americans. This year, states voting on marijuana ballot initiatives include Nevada, Arizona, California, Maine and Massachusetts.
2. Oregon could elect America’s first openly bisexual governor
True, Kate Brown is already Oregon’s governor—as secretary of state, she assumed the role after Governor John Kitzhaber resigned in a corruption scandal. But there’s a big difference between that and the validation that comes with winning an election while out of the closet. This is a test—running while openly bisexual—that no other gubernatorial candidate has faced in American history, and it’s looking likely that Brown will pass it: Polls currently have her up by double digits.
3. You may soon have a constitutional right to hunt and fish
One week before Indiana’s hunters mark the start of deer season, they’ll vote on whether to amend the state’s constitution to establish a defined right to hunt and fish. Similar initiatives will be on the ballot in Montana, which has a referendum over whether to prohibit the use of animal traps on state lands, and Kansas, which is mulling a proposed amendment that would ensure the right to hunt, fish and trap wildlife. If the measures pass, the right to hunt and fish will be recognized in at least 20 state constitutions.
4. For the first time, a state government might institute a carbon tax
Among environmentalists, one of the most controversial, big-picture policy proposals is a carbon tax—penalizing pollution by charging businesses for the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Nationally, it has drawn interest from liberals and conservatives—and even some ginger support from oil companies—but it’s a political impossibility in Congress.
Which is why Washington’s Initiative 732 is so audacious. This year, voters across the state will decide whether to enact a tax on carbon—the first such statewide tax in the country. One would expect such an environmentalist proposal to win the support of the Democratic Party and the Sierra Club, organizations traditionally on board with policies that would curb climate change. But in Washington state, both groups, along with organized labor and social justice activists, are opposing the initiative.
The cause of the scrambled political alliances is the initiative’s plan for how to use any revenue the tax would generate. In an attempt to win bipartisan support, the current proposal would use the new revenue to fund tax cuts and tax breaks for businesses and employees hurt by the carbon tax. Ironically, that prescription has essentially assured that the support won’t be bipartisan. The left-wing groups opposing the plan would rather see the money going to clean energy and transit, as well as the minority communities often hit hardest by nearby refineries.
5. The number of states banning the death penalty could reach a new high: 21
Since 1846, when Michigan became the first English-speaking government in the Western world to ban capital punishment, the number of states with a moratorium on the practice has grown — albeit slowly and in small bursts. But 2016 is a critical year for the cause, as voters in California, Nebraska and Oklahoma will decide state initiatives on the topic. If California and Nebraska ban the use of capital punishment, that will make a total of 21 states where executions are illegal.
Oklahomans, on the other hand, are voting on whether to enshrine the death penalty in their state constitution, which would make it easier for the state to carry out executions in the future.
6. Colorado could implement the nation’s only statewide single-payer health care system
Supporters of ColoradoCares, the proposed single-payer health care system on the ballot this year in Colorado, say that they like Obamacare—they just don’t think the president’s plan goes far enough. If their proposed solution is given a green light by voters, it would increase the payroll tax in Colorado by 10 percentage points and provide premium-free health care to all citizens.
Unsurprisingly, such an audacious plan has its skeptics. Hospital associations, private insurance companies and even progressive politicians like Governor John Hickenlooper charge that the program isn’t financially feasible. They point to Vermont, which passed similar legislation in 2011 before giving up in 2014 for financial reasons. But some Coloradans—plus Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders—want the Colorado measure to succeed. If it does, it will be the only active statewide single-payer system in America.
7. The end of food stamps as we know it?
What’s at stake in control of the House? With congressional Republicans overwhelmed by the fallout from Hurricane Trump, House Speaker Paul Ryan has had trouble getting people to pay attention to his “Better Way” agenda. That may change after the election. Presuming Ryan keeps his speakership and finds willing partners in the White House and Senate (which is unlikely), he could pursue his plan to overhaul the country’s food stamp system. The House GOP wants to split food stamps out of the farm bill and devolve the program to states, paid via block grants—a move that would also dismantle the urban-rural coalition that historically has gotten the bill to pass.
By ending the federal program that sends low-income families food assistance every month and putting that money instead in the hands of state governments, the plan would essentially end a federal effort that dates back to FDR’s New Deal.
8. The number of black Republicans in the U.S. House could drop from two to zero
When Will Hurd and Mia Love won election to the House in 2014, it was a historic moment for the Republican Party, whose House conference has historically lacked racial diversity. Fast forward two years, and both promising freshmen are locked in tight battles for reelection. In his district along the Texas-Mexico border, Hurd faces former Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego, in what is widely regarded as the Lone Star State’s sole competitive House race. In Utah, Love, a charismatic speaker whose star is rising in conservative circles, faces a rematch against Doug Owens, her 2014 opponent. While she’s currently ahead in most polls, the sizable X-factor for Utah Republicans is how Trump—a candidate widely disliked by the state’s influential Mormon population—affects down-ballot Republicans.
9. Maine might become America’s biggest voting experiment
Fed up with Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Interested in voting for a third-party candidate, but don’t want to risk throwing the election to the candidate you dislike the most? An experiment in Maine could offer a solution: Question 5 on the state ballot proposes replacing Maine’s current electoral system with ranked-choice voting, allowing voters to express their numerical preferences for all state offices, including U.S. senators and U.S. representatives. When ballots are tallied, if no candidate has more than 50 percent of voters’ first choices, then the least-popular candidate will be eliminated. His or her supporters would have their top-ranked candidate crossed off their ballots, and their votes would fall to their second-ranked candidates.
Supporters believe that ranked-choice voting empowers third parties and gives voters more options. Detractors believe that there’s nothing wrong with the simple “majority or plurality rules” setup right now, and point to studies linking ranked-choice voting to lower voter turnout.
While Maine would be the first state to adopt such a system, San Francisco, Oakland, St. Paul and Minneapolis currently use ranked-choice voting, as does the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in selection of the Academy Award for Best Picture.
10. Background-check loopholes on gun purchases could be closed in a fifth of the country
Both Republican-backed and Democrat-backed bills to reform America’s background-check system failed this year in the Senate, so gun control advocates are taking the fight to the states. Maine and Nevada are poised to become the ninth and 10th states requiring universal background checks, and Californians will decide whether to join New York, Connecticut and Washington, D.C., in requiring background checks for ammunition purchases.
11. Massachusetts could be the first state to regulate how chickens and cows live
Massachusetts isn’t a large producer of eggs or meat, but animal-rights groups and national trade associations are paying close attention to the state this year. Question 3 on the ballot would require giving farm animals enough space to lie down, stand up, extend their limbs and turn around — essentially banning inhumane confined animal feeding operations.
Proponents don’t think that is asking for much, but opponents insist it would substantially raise egg prices because farms from outside the state would have to comply if they wished to import and sell their products in Massachusetts. The Humane Society of the United States has poured more than a million dollars into the “yes” campaign, and if the measure passes, it could soon show up on ballots in other states.
12. The first Latina could be elected to the U.S. Senate
It depends on the outcome of Senate elections in California and Nevada, but 2017 could see the first Latina member of the U.S. Senate.
In California, Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez is running to succeed outgoing Senator Barbara Boxer. Due to the oddities of California’s electoral system, her general-election matchup pits her against California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a fellow Democrat. Polls currently have Sanchez down by double digits, but even if she loses, history could be made in the state next door.
Former Nevada Attorney General Catherine Cortez Masto is locked in a tight race against Republican Rep. Joe Heck for the Senate seat being vacated by Harry Reid. Most recent polls give Masto a slight edge, and if those numbers hold—and Loretta Sanchez loses in California—Cortez Masto would become the first Latina to serve in the United States Senate.
13. As state referendums become more common in the U.S., California could push direct democracy one step further
Since 1996, California has averaged an eye-popping 18 statewide ballot propositions every two years. That could intensify after 2016: This year, Proposition 53 would give even more control to voters. Under its language, any infrastructure project costing more than $2 billion would automatically require voter approval.
In the foreseeable future, this would require a ballot measure to approve any major infrastructure project in the state—including, notably, existing plans for a major water tunnel project in central California and the high-speed rail project that Sacramento has discussed for years. The power to fund big budget items could now be in the hands of Californians, and that alone would be an unprecedented experiment in direct democracy.
14. New funding for high-risk, high-reward biomedical research could die in the Senate
If the Senate shifts to Democratic control—depending on the results of the lame-duck session—it could signal the death knell for the 21st Century Cures legislation, which passed the House but is being held up in the Senate by a partisan budget conflict. Democratic leadership in the Senate supports the bill, but it isn’t particularly passionate about it, and the legislation might not be the priority for Democrats that it has been under the stewardship of Republican Senators Lamar Alexander and Bill Cassidy.
15. Washington and South Dakota may introduce new public financing of political campaigns
Currently, South Dakota imposes no limits on individual contributions to parties and PACs. But if Ballot Measure 22 passes, not only will there be a $2,000 limit, the state’s entire campaign finance system will be overhauled. Measure 22 would allow voters to direct up to $12 million of state funding in the form of $50 vouchers to candidates of their choice. To accept those vouchers, candidates would have to waive most traditional fundraising methods.
Washington state is proposing a similar “democracy credits” system, and could also cap campaign contributions from lobbyists and government contractors to a mere $100, an effort to curb “pay to play” corruption.
16. Cigarettes could get a whole lot more expensive for 51.4 million Americans
Thirty years ago, there were nearly 180,000 tobacco farms in the U.S. Today, that number is closer to 10,000. Unfortunately for Big Tobacco, that trend looks to continue: Cigarettes are already one of the most heavily taxed products in the U.S., but that hasn’t stopped tobacco tax measures from making it on the ballots in four states this November.
Cigarette taxes could increase by $2 per pack in California, by $1.75 per pack in Colorado, by 60 or 23 cents in Missouri—where 1 in 4 residents are smokers—and by $1.76 in North Dakota.
17. Washington, D.C., could take a big step toward statehood
After years of decrying the sad state of taxation without congressional representation for D.C. residents, Mayor Muriel Bowser decided to try a new, old method to push for statehood. Modeling the approach on the one Tennessee used in 1796, when the territory first approved a state constitution and then applied for statehood, D.C. ballots will give voters the opportunity to authorize the City Council to approve a constitution for the proposed state of New Columbia.
It may not be enough to move Congress to grant statehood to the District, but longtime advocates for the cause are holding out hope that a clear mandate from the city’s residents could force the government into action.
18. California’s porn industry could be forced to use condoms
In 2012, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation pushed Measure B through Los Angeles County, requiring actors in pornographic films to wear condoms in all scenes depicting penetrative sex. Now, the foundation wants to expand the regulation statewide.
Unsurprisingly, the adult film industry thinks the proposed regulation is a horrible idea. Perhaps more surprisingly, though, the state’s Democratic and Republican parties share their opposition to the proposal. But if voters say yes, then the nation’s largest adult film industry would have a choice: Go underground, leave the state, or invest in safe sex.
19. The Senate will almost certainly get its first biracial, and first Indian-American, woman
Kamala Harris is a trailblazing Democrat currently in her second term as California’s attorney general—she is the first Asian-American and first African-American woman to hold the position. In the race to succeed retiring Senator Barbara Boxer, Harris locked up most of the Democratic Party’s heavy hitters early on, including Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Joe Biden and President Barack Obama, and that support has thrust her into a double-digit lead in the open Senate race.
If elected, she’ll make history as just the second African-American woman to serve in the U.S. Senate, as well as the first Indian-American and first biracial woman elected to the chamber. And if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency, you can count on her to be part of a Washington power couple of sorts: her sister, Maya Harris, is one of Clinton’s top policy advisers.
20. Several states that have opted out of Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion could flip their positions
Medicaid expansion was a major victory for President Obama in his push for health care reform, but not even the president can force every state to accept the expansion. As of today, 19 states (mostly with Republican governors) have opted out of the expansion, but in a few—such as Georgia, North Carolina, and Missouri—possible shakeups in state legislatures and governors’ houses could tip the balance in favor of expansion. Even crimson-red Alabama might choose to opt in.
21. The momentum behind soda taxes could go down the drain
When the liberal bastion of Berkeley, California, imposed the nation’s first soda tax in 2014, it was a defeat for the soft-drink industry, but not altogether surprising. It makes sense that a notoriously crunchy college town would be the first domino to fall. But if the industry believed the damage could be contained there, they were wrong: Earlier this year, Philadelphia’s City Council followed Berkeley’s footsteps, enacting its own version of the soda tax.
Now, Big Soda faces a supersized obstacle: a three-front war in California. Voters in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany will weigh in on the sugary sin tax this November. Both the pro and anti sides have their wallets at the ready for the upcoming showdown: The beverage industry has already spent more than $30 million this election cycle, and anti-soda crusader Michael Bloomberg has personally contributed $9 million to the cause.
22. Your doctor could legally help end your life in one-sixth of the country
Colorado voters will decide via a statewide referendum in November whether to enact “Death with Dignity” legislation that allows terminally ill patients to receive life-ending treatment from their doctors. If the measure passes, Colorado will join Washington, Oregon, California and Vermont as the only states with such laws on the books (Montana also allows assisted suicide, but via a court ruling rather than legislation). Next year it’s likely that even more of the nation will join their ranks: the legislatures of at least 20 states are considering the issue.
23. Minimum wage raises could soon be coming to 23 states — and the minimum wage could actually go down in South Dakota
The federal minimum wage of $7.25 hasn’t budged in seven years, and many states aren’t waiting for Congress to push it higher. Voters in Colorado, Arizona, and Maine will decide whether to increase the minimum wage to $12 by 2020, and Washingtonians will consider raising it to $13.50.
If these measures succeed, 14 states will have scheduled future increases in the minimum wage, along with eight others with plans to annually adjust their minimum wages as the cost of living rises.
One state, South Dakota, will vote on whether to decrease the minimum wage by a dollar for workers under the age of 18.
24. States will decide whether to grant special tax exemptions to seniors, first responders and other interest groups
The idea isn’t entirely new: after 9/11, Congress authorized major tax breaks for first responders, survivors and their families. Now, voters in some states are considering granting property tax exemptions to a variety of politically powerful groups: Senior citizens and first responders in Florida; the surviving spouses of first responders in Louisiana; and the spouses of public employees killed in the line of duty in Virginia could all receive property tax exemptions if voters signal their consent on Election Day.
25. Schools could get a lot more money in eight states
The economy has largely recovered from the Great Recession, but education funding has not. At least 23 states provide less general-education funding today than they did the year the economy tanked.
Now, some states want to fix that problem, but there are disputes over how to raise the money. Ballot initiatives in California, New Mexico and Rhode Island would issue bonds; an initiative in Oregon would tax corporations; Oklahoma would raise its sales tax; and North Dakota would divert some of its newfound oil wealth to the cause.
Billions in education funding is on the line, and the initiatives’ supporters and opponents have already pooled more than $50 million in campaign contributions.
26. Atlantic City could get another nail in the coffin
In the past two decades, more than a dozen casinos have opened in New York, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Now, voters could give the green light for more casinos in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and voters in New Jersey face a choice: Public Question 1 would allow two new casinos to be built in New Jersey outside of Atlantic City.
Opponents to the New Jersey measure say that breaking Atlantic City’s statewide monopoly would doom the town, while proponents contend that new casinos are Atlantic City’s only hope, because one third of the revenue the state gets from them would go to an Atlantic City revitalization fund.
But with increasing competition from other casinos—like those on ballots in Rhode Island and Massachusetts—it’s hard to know if New Jersey’s proposed plan could realistically raise enough revenue to revive the city of Donald Trump’s failed Taj Mahal, which shuttered its windows for good earlier this fall.
27. Voters will decide whether there should be an age limit for judges
In some communities, this election is turning out to be something of a referendum on an issue that doesn’t get much coverage: age limits for judges. As of today, 32 states have enacted age limits for judges, and some of them are beginning to regret it: Pennsylvania voters could raise the maximum age from 70 to 75, and Oregon could repeal its age limit of 75 altogether. Alabama is considering ballot initiatives that would change the existing age limits for both some of its judges and civic servants. Supporters argue that people are living longer, medicine has improved the quality of life for senior citizens, and therefore it only makes sense that judges can serve longer.
28. California will push the upper limits of how much it can tax its wealthiest residents
When Californians voted for Proposition 30 in 2012, it created four high-income tax brackets that would be effective for seven years. The top bracket, a 13.3 percent charge on income over $1 million, is easily the highest state tax in the country. Now, voters have the opportunity to extend the high-income tax hikes through 2030. If they do, the question is whether other blue states will follow. Maine, for its part, will also be voting on whether to raise the income tax by 3 percent on household income over $200,000.
29. Washington could enact one of the nation’s toughest gun laws ever
In 2014, in the wake of the UCSB shooting, California Governor Jerry Brown passed a law allowing family members and law enforcement to petition a judge to issue Gun Violence Restraining Orders, which can temporarily prohibit a person at danger of hurting themselves or others from purchasing or possessing a firearm. Now, Washington state has a similar initiative on the ballot, the first time the proposal has ever been placed directly in front of voters.
30. A state government might set a groundbreaking cap on drug prices
Just because Medicare is legally prevented from negotiating drug prices—which is one reason why pharmaceutical costs are going up—doesn’t mean that California can’t.
In what is becoming one of the most expensive initiative campaigns in the country’s history—with $123 million raised and counting—Californians are considering an unprecedented rebuke to the Big Pharma. Proposition 61 would prohibit the state from buying drugs above the price given to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, which receives an average discount of 24 percent off manufacturers’ prices.
Many opponents have no sympathy for pharmaceutical companies, but warn that there is no telling how the pharmaceutical industry would react—possibly hurting Californians in the long term. But if the proposition passes, it would be the largest legal reproach of Big Pharma yet, and could set a precedent. It’s the nation’s largest state by far, a huge market for medicine, is a center of the industry, and its price caps could have an impact that reverberates through health care markets throughout the nation—making the proposal meaningful both practically and symbolically.
Next year, Ohioans will vote on a near-identical ballot measure.
31. The country’s only statewide ban on plastic bags could be thrown out
Every county of Hawaii has banned single-use plastic bags, but technically California can still become the first state to implement the ban this November. The legislation was enacted by the California State Legislature, but could be overturned by a “no” vote from Californians. If the proposition passes, stores could only sell recyclable paper bags or reusable bags to its customers.
32. Former refugees could arrive in legislatures
Refugees in the U.S., stuck in the spotlight thanks to Donald Trump, may be ready for 2016 to end. But the election could give them cause to celebrate: several refugees are en route to becoming elected officials.
Bao Nguyen, a Vietnamese-American born in a Thailand refugee camp, is the young Democratic mayor of Garden Grove, California, and is running for Congress in the state’s 46th District. If he wins, he could become the second Vietnamese-American ever to serve in Congress.
Another promising race is in Minnesota, where 33-year-old Ilhan Omar, a Somali-born woman who as a child spent four years in a refugee camp, is expected to win a seat in the state Legislature. If elected, she would become America’s first Somali-American state legislator.
33. Vermont could get the world’s spaciest baseball player as governor
Those who know Bill “Spaceman” Lee aren’t shocked to hear about the former Boston Red Sox pitcher’s gubernatorial bid in Vermont. Observers have long thought Lee’s head is in the clouds: In 1971, Lee, while being interviewed by reporters in the Fenway Park locker room, abruptly switched the conversation from baseball to the Apollo 15 moon landing (hence the nickname, “Spaceman”).
In 1998, the Spaceman ran for president as the nominee of the Rhinoceros Party. His platform included bulldozing the Rocky Mountains so Alberta, Canada, could receive more sunlight. His slogan was, “No guns, no butter. Both can kill.”
Now, his name (nickname included) is on the Vermont ballot, this time as the gubernatorial nominee of the Liberty Union Party—the same party that once nominated Bernie Sanders in a failed gubernatorial effort. Lee has also changed up his pitch: “So far left, we’re right.” He promises that if elected, he will not do much.
Will the Spaceman win the race for governor? Probably not. According to Vermont Public Radio, he is currently polling at 2 percent. On the other hand, that might be enough to swing the race to Republican Phil Scott, who is neck-and-neck with Democratic nominee Sue Minter.
It is vital for everyone to get out and vote on November 8th. There is so much at stake besides the Presidency. As you have read, the states have many important propositions and elections to be decided soon. The truth is that there is a lot at stake for the American people besides the Presidential race. I am taking nothing away from the importance of the Presidential race but the issues mentioned above could effect the lives of many Americans. I suggest you do some homework about what questions and issues come up for a vote in your city and/or state. Your vote will be really important in these questions also.
You can check with the League of Women Voters to get information about candidates and issues on the ballot. Every one is important. From us Baby Boomers to the Millennials. In the present moment, we all have what is important to us now but as we age those things will change so keep your eye on the big picture. If an issue doesn’t pass and it is important to you, get involved. Turn your passion into constructive work on the issue and not anger.
Working in local politics can be a very satisfying way to express your political views and make your community a better place for every one to live. I found my niche as a feminist, making the world and my community a better, safer place for women and children. What is your niche? I know many of you are writers but what else is important to you? What gets your blood flowing? Make yourself a niche and chance your world.