One effort springing from the shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, is a concerted drive to register more voters in that community. Ferguson is 70 percent black, but its mayor, five of its six city councilors, and 94 percent of its police department are white.This disparity is partly attributable to the town’s poor voter turnout: according to the New York Times, the current mayor “won a second term…with 1,314 votes from…the city’s 12,000 registered voters.”
The situation in Ferguson underscores the extent to which local elections and down-ballot state races have an enormous effect on people’s lives. Sometimes,such elections have to do with the right to vote itself.In Florida, for example, an elected judiciary has recently waded into the issue of whether the state’s new congressional districts pass constitutional muster. In Ohio, the incumbent secretary of state has promulgated rules to limit early voting. In both cases, elected officials who lack the prominence of governors or senators have made decisions with serious ramifications for citizens’ political rights.
Down-ballot races affect American democracy in other arenas as well. Big business often targets judicial elections in an effort to elect justices more amenable to tort reform legislation. While intended to stop frivolous lawsuits, tort reform laws often restrict access to the courtroom for consumers and others with legitimate claims. Meanwhile, recent mayoral ballots in New York and Newark have shown that local races have a profound effect on educational policy, as urban electorates have turned away from reform-minded mayors like Michael Bloomberg and Corey Booker and towards union-backed candidates like Bill DeBlasio and Ras Baraka.
These less noticed elections are also indicative of the growing influence of outside, special interest money at every level of government. To take one example, conservative groups produced negative ads aimed at North Carolina supreme court justices in that state’s May elections.
Given the power of less prominent office holders, voter engagement in elections that take place off the presidential cycle and which draw less attention than races with obvious national implications is crucial. As noted, sometimes engagement in off years can determine who can be engaged in bigger contests: Florida has twice proven that bad secretaries of state have broad consequences.
With the effect of these races in mind, Harvard students and people in the wider community should not forget that Tuesday, September 9, is primary day in Massachusetts. In a crowded Democratic field, 21 percentof voters are still undecided in the race for governor, a number that balloons to 74 percent for the lieutenant governor’s race, 50 percent in the attorney general’s race, and 60 percent in the race for treasurer.
All three of those down-ballot contests deserve more attention from the electorate. The Massachusetts’ lieutenant governorship is not the most useful office; the Commonwealth hasn’t had one for over a year. But consider what other holders of the position have done: voters elected then-Lieutenant Governor John Kerry to the United States Senate in 1984. Might Democratic candidates Steve Kerrigan, Leeland Cheung (a Cambridge City Councilor), or Mike Lake be next?
For its part, the attorney general’s office has more powers than many might believe. Candidate Warren Tolman has pledged to use Massachusetts’ consumer protection laws to mandate smart gun technology on new guns. His opponent, Maura Healey ’92, has argued that such a mandate must come from the legislature. In short, voters have a real choice: A candidate with a clear plan for immediate implementation, or one with a more staid perspective. (Full disclosure: Tolman is a longtime family friend and I’ve worked on Mr. Tolman’s campaign.)
Finally, with its control over the investment of the state’s money, its management of the lottery, and its influence on pension policy, the treasurer’s office can have a significant effect on what revenue is available for infrastructure and education. Voters should spend time determining whether Deb Goldberg, Barry Finegold, or Tom Conroy will be a better steward of their tax dollars.
No matter whom he or she chooses, every resident of Massachusetts should head to the polls on September 9. Whether as a political stepping-stone, a champion for victims of gun violence, or a smart conservator of our common wealth, each down-ballot office presents voters with a real chance to influence their state. They should not pass up the opportunity.
Nelson L. Barrette ’17, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.