This year’s presidential race has been the focal point of intense scrutiny and media attention for months. While Donald Trump’s candidacy has inflamed racial and cultural anxieties, down ballot races in 2016 present a picture of a diversifying and increasingly progressive nation. Frequently overlooked local and state leaders play an extraordinary role in supporting our communities on various issues, ranging from education and criminal justice to infrastructure and economic development. In this contentious presidential election year, it is all the more important to care about and vote in the historic down ballot races taking place across the nation.
Take, for example, the fever-pitched contest for control of the U.S. Senate. Partisanship aside, many of these races pose an opportunity for increased diversity in one of our nation’s most powerful legislative bodies. Our senators are overwhelmingly white and male, with abysmally low representation of women and minority groups.
While there will still be more work to be done, the results of this election will likely be a step in the right direction for demographic representation. At present, there is only one senator who is a woman of color, Mazie Hirono (D-HI). If Tammy Duckworth, Catherine Cortez Masto and Kamala Harris maintain their respective leads in Illinois, Nevada and California, their wins would be historic advancements for the Senate’s diversity that can and must be built on in successive elections.
With dozens of House of Representatives seats also competitive, voters have a real shot at electing a new Congress who will move past Washington’s characteristic obstructionism. November’s results have the potential to empower leaders from a variety of backgrounds with the common interest of serving the American people. Given that President Obama’s progressive agenda has long been stymied by congressional brinksmanship, high voter turnout in House and Senate races will have a profound impact on national policy, regardless of which candidate wins the White House.
Significant state and local races will also be on the ballot this November. In addition to gubernatorial and other statewide elections, several states, including West Virginia and New Mexico, have competitive secretary of state races. These elections will determine who is elected to run each state’s election process in future years. In light of efforts to introduce voter identification laws and early voting restrictions, state leaders who will combat civic disenfranchisement are integral to protecting our democratic values.
Contests for many legislative chambers, including the Connecticut State Senate, are likewise highly competitive. State legislatures are often at the forefront of issues such as school funding, energy regulation and women’s and reproductive health. With a smaller electorate than statewide or congressional races, legislative districts give particular power to the individual voter to promote political change.
Additionally, many states and municipalities are considering consequential ballot measures. In these campaigns, citizens have the ability to vote directly on aspects of specific policies. California alone has 17 such measures on the ballot, including one with the potential to abolish the death penalty. Five states are also holding referendums to raise the minimum wage. Hotly contested measures around the nation have the potential to dramatically improve the lives of many.
Finally, individual local officials have a significant role in public policy. For instance, many decisions on sentencing and prosecution are made locally by district attorneys. If we want to combat mass incarceration and racial prejudice in our criminal justice system, we must vote for that change not just at the presidential level, but also down the ballot. Similarly, the most effective education reforms often start at the grassroots level, led by members of school boards. If we want to create opportunities for every child, we must elect parents and community leaders who will advance this aim.
Students on our campus come from every single state in this nation. Regardless of whether or not you live in a presidential swing state, your vote matters. Down ballot campaigns this year provide an opportunity to promote new political leadership and transform policies in our communities.
jordan cozby is a freshman in Branford College. Contact him at