Many voters have been caught up in following the latest news surrounding the 2016 presidential election. With the release of leaked emails, allegations of a rigged voting system and fears of possible Russian involvement in the election, there is definitely a theatrical appeal to this campaign season.
This drama contributes to the false sense that determining the person who holds the presidency is the most important decision to be made in November — and unfortunately it keeps voters from closely following state and local elections, too.
“If you look at voter turnout, you know by default that people pay more attention to politics during presidential years,” said Sandra Suarez, a political science professor.
National estimates show that in the absence of a presidential election, voter turnout for midterm elections drops by about 20 percentage points, resulting in a 40 percent overall turnout.
But local and state government officials have a much more direct impact on citizens of those local and state jurisdictions, so it’s even more important voters research these candidates.
I hope voters expand their focus to elections beyond the race for the presidency.
Pennsylvania voters will cast their ballots for candidates to represent the state’s Congressional districts, the state attorney general, treasurer, auditor general and one of the state’s senators.
In the past few weeks, senate races in Pennsylvania and various other swing states have actually started to heat up.
A Monmouth University poll predicted a tie in the upcoming Pennsylvania senatorial race between Democratic candidate Katie McGinty and Republican candidate Pat Toomey.
This Pennsylvania Senate race, along with Senate races in three other swing states, has the potential to shift control of Congress from the Republican party to the Democratic party. A FiveThirtyEight poll found that there is a 57 percent chance the Democrats will have a net gain of four seats in the Senate, allowing this switch to occur.
The results of the Senate race in Pennsylvania and other battleground states will clearly have a strong impact on policy and legislation over the next four years, yet the presidential election still dominates national attention.
This tendency to focus more on the incoming president and less on other candidates can have negative impacts on the way people vote.
Straight-ticket voting, or voting solely for the members of your affiliated party, often occurs when voters don’t research candidates in other races. This may lead to voters selecting candidates who don’t actually represent their interests.
“Ideally people are researching who they are voting for,” said Mitchell Sellers, an assistant professor of political science. “But that’s rarely the case.”
“The fact that we have a symbol indicating partisanship results in people voting based on partisanship,” Sellers said.
Unfortunately, voters largely ignore the policy positions of other candidates, forgetting that the president’s ability to make decisions depends largely on cooperation from other branches of government.
“Every branch needs to agree for anything to happen,” Suarez said. “So, all of the legislation, as far as the Constitution is concerned, has to originate in the House and the Senate.”
Officials in the legislative and judicial branches of government also work to keep the president in check.
“They’re responsible for oversight in the other branches of government, so if there was corruption in the executive branch, for example, they’d be responsible for reviewing that and possibly impeaching,” Sellers said.
“Congress can challenge Executive Orders in court,” Sellers added. “They can say that the President overstepped their boundary, and have the courts rule whether or not they actually had that authority.”
Congressional elections select officials who will collectively have large amounts of power like this, but unfortunately voter turnout often remains low. This needs to change if citizens want policies enacted that truly reflect their views.
Showing up to vote on Election Day is one thing, but showing up to cast an informed ballot for all levels of government is quite another. Take some time to read about all of the candidates you’ll be seeing on the ballot on Nov. 8 and make an informed decision about which ones you think will do the job best.
Alex Voisine can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.