What's at Stake in This Election?

Seven crucial issues, from the people who care about them most.
Photograph by Bloomberg/Getty Images

Combine the millions of dollars worth of (mostly) negative advertising, the mailers, the robo calls, and the overly earnest get-out-the-vote volunteers at the front door and you can scarcely blame weary voters for asking whether Tuesday's election matters. Some folks even argue that this is the least important election in years.

Yes, this is a democracy, and Americans should appreciate the right to vote and have their voices heard. But we’ve already seen arguments that control of the Senate will come down to just eight races, to be settled by about 3.4 percent of Americans. And if you listen to conventional wisdom, and all the data wizards who monitor the odds of a GOP Senate, you'd be tempted to conclude that Republicans are in for a good night and will go on to make things difficult for President Barack Obama during his last two years. 

Still, there are stakes, and they are high. The results likely will have ramifications for the agendas of President Obama, Democrats, Republicans, gay rights, women’s reproductive rights issues, Medicaid, legalized marijuana, and even climate change. Here's why. 

1. Power Over the Federal Budget

Obama has said–to the Democrats' chagrin–that his policies are on the ballot, and Republican candidates argue that votes for them will help scale back those policies. As Senate Minority (possibly soon to be Majority) Leader Mitch McConnell said at a private Koch brothers event this year, a GOP Senate will, at the very least, make a dent in Obama’s agenda.

In the House and Senate, we own the budget. So what does that mean? That means that we can pass the spending bill. And I assure you that in the spending bill, we will be pushing back against this bureaucracy by doing what’s called placing riders in the bill. No money can be spent to do this or to do that. We’re going to go after them on health care, on financial services, on the Environmental Protection Agency, across the board. All across the federal government, we’re going to go after it.

As David Leonhardt of the New York Times noted, a government shutdown caused by Congress refusing to pass a budget harms Congress; things would be different if the government shut down because Obama vetoed a budget that targets the EPA. “At the very least, he may have to compromise over climate policy even more than he has so far,” he wrote. 

2. The Expansion of Medicaid

If the Democratic gubernatorial candidate wins in Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Maine or Wisconsin, those states might expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

As Joan McCarter at the left-leaning site Daily Kos wrote, that’s especially true in Maine and Wisconsin. In Maine the state legislature has approved a Medicaid expansion for 70,000 uninsured Mainers several times, only to see it vetoed by Republican Governor Paul LePage. In Wisconsin, if Democrat Mary Burke wins, she can expand Medicaid with an executive order.

“The stakes in this election are as high as they are in any presidential year for the 157,000 people in Maine and Wisconsin who are forced to be uninsured solely because of the political whims of their governors,” McCarter wrote. “Yeah, that matters. A lot.”

3. Cabinet and Judicial Confirmations

The Senate confirms cabinet members, ambassadors, and federal and Supreme Court judges, and there are hundreds of unfilled executive nominations, including ambassadors to about 30 countries. A Republican majority could block future nominations almost at will.

Of special note is the judiciary. Federal courts “often have the final say on policies relating to immigration, labor unions, business regulation, climate change, health care and same-sex marriage,” Leonhardt wrote. “The biggest issues go to the Supreme Court, but lower courts decide most questions.”

4. Gay Rights

Chad Griffin, the president of the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, has been traveling the country encouraging people to vote. The group also has a video that emphasizes that a handful of races in past elections have been won by fewer than 200 votes and argues that the stakes are high because of anti-gay conservatives on the ballot. 

5. Women’s Health Issues

Actress, author and professional provocateur Lena Dunham wrote a blog post for Planned Parenthood explaining why she votes “and you should too.” The short version, according to Dunham: There are a lot of “backwards, out-of-touch, downright freaking unbelievably anti-women’s health politicians” on the ballot. “You can’t complain about the status quo or about the crazy medieval attacks on women’s health unless you VOTE,” Dunham wrote. “And apathy is so 2008.”

Pro-life groups are advocating for their own candidates. Here’s a message from the National Right to Life coalition in support of Ernst:

6. Minimum Wage, Marijuana, GMOs

Across the country, there are ballot measures to legalize marijuana, require labels for genetically modified foods, raise the minimum wage, and possibly criminalize abortion. Bloomberg View created an infographic of the most interesting here, but some of the most controversial are three anti-abortion initiatives up for a vote in Tennessee, Colorado and North Dakota.

7. Your Voice

This is true of every election: The people who don’t vote, don’t matter. For example, it's not a coincidence that Congress protects Medicare but is less universally supportive of other aspects of the social safety net. Older Americans—the ones who benefit from Medicare—vote. 

“At the federal level, the low participation of young voters has produced a government that, not coincidentally, borrows heavily and spends excessively on benefit programs for retirees,” wrote USA Today’s editorial board.

In short, this election matters because politics doesn’t care about the people who don’t care about politics.

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