The Things Closest to Home Hit you the Hardest.
By Adam Sanders.
Election time gets everyone riled up in the U.S. Whether it is the Presidential, Senate, or House races, turnout has been exploding in recent years (along with the vitriol). The talking heads gab, the amount of polling is astronomical, and one is surprised at how frantically septuagenarians can travel around the country. And yet, even in the present day, voters often ignore the type of elections that have the most impact on their day-to-day lives. These races are gubernatorial and state legislature elections. In order to understand the importance of gubernatorial and state legislature elections, one needs to consult the U.S. Constitution.
Under the Tenth Amendment, the Constitution lays out the federal nature of the country. Specifically, the amendment states that, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” The significance of this declaration is paramount. Looking at the Tenth Amendment is important because even when taking “Implied Powers” into account, there are still so many powers that the Federal Government has not claimed exclusive rights to over the states. Even a number of federal functions operate parallel to equivalent state functions under the concept of “Dual Federalism.”
There are two major examples of Federal and State functions operating in tandem or complimenting each other. Taxation is an obvious example. Citizens pay county/city taxes, state taxes, and federal taxes (with the lion’s share going to the latter). Law enforcement is also a parallel process, slanted in favor of the states. Moreover, education is almost purely a state affair in the U.S. With regard to taxation, taxpayers certainly pay more in federal taxes than in state taxes. One may assume that this means the federal government’s revenue is more impactful on a voter’s everyday life. However, the disproportionate amount of money sent to the federal government is deceptive. To be sure, the federal government is the sole operator of social security, Medicare, and national defense. But it is in fact the states that use their tax revenue in the most direct way to invest in local communities. Schools, public hospitals, intrastate infrastructure, and local law enforcement are all paid for and regulated by state governments.
The story is similar in the realm of law enforcement. While the FBI is a robust agency tasked with busting interstate crimes, organized crime, and crimes of a particularly severe nature, most criminal cases never involve federal law enforcement. The overwhelming majority of criminal justice and law enforcement still occur on the state level, whether violations are misdemeanors or felonies. Most robberies, drug offenses, rapes, or even murders are tried, prosecuted, and punished entirely within the state they occurred, barring diversity of citizenship.
Finally, the federal government only has a supporting role in education. State governments virtually reign supreme in the realm of regulating education. States set curricula, states disburse funding to schools, states establish teacher training criteria, and states determine school districts. That is also why what children learn in school in the U.S. can vary widely. Taxation, criminal justice, and education are only a few examples. Notably, there are other myriad regulatory and police powers that could be discussed here as an example of dual federalism, but that risks digression. The three examples examined thus far of parallel state and federal functions illustrate why voters should not forget about gubernatorial or state elections.
As we have seen, state governments have far greater direct influence over voters’ lives. States set up drivers’ license requirements. States determine where our children go to school. States determine what counties exist and how many there are. But critically, states are also responsible for conducting elections, and not just state elections. As we saw quite dramatic proof of in 2020, federal elections are organized at the state level. In fact, Presidential elections, in particular, are not so much one election as fifty identical elections conducted simultaneously. While the real groundwork is largely conducted by volunteers, the top officials are appointed by the governor of the state in which an election is being conducted. Namely, a state’s secretary of state is in charge of overseeing and safeguarding both state and federal elections being conducted in their respective state.
These officials (usually) stay out of the limelight, but they are vital to both a state and the nation in their function. Much like how one should pay attention to governors for the judges they appoint, one should also take care to vote for governors based on how qualified their choice of secretary of state is likely to be. Keeping this in mind, voters will have an indirect influence on how fair, safe, and secure their democratic elections will be. Remembering to participate in state elections is quite simple in most cases. Gubernatorial elections typically occur in the same election cycles as general elections on the federal level. As a result, the gubernatorial and/or state legislature candidates are on the same ballot where one votes for President, Senator, or Representative.
One final major reason to pay attention to state races comes down to gerrymandering. This term has been kicked around in the news cycle a lot in conversations involving Congressional midterm elections and voting rights debates. However, those purely focusing on federal elections and campaigns may not fully understand how redistricting works. The federal government does not determine House of Representative districts. These are drawn up by state legislatures. Herein lies the crux of the gerrymandering issue. By being controlled by directly elected partisan representatives, state legislatures are systemically incentivized to “stack the deck,” so to speak. By modifying districts to exclude the opposing party’s usual constituents or lump together friendly voters together in a district, partisan state lawmakers can jury-rig the state into a permanent House fortress of their particular party, especially combined with low turnout.
In conclusion, voters absolutely cannot afford to ignore gubernatorial elections and elections to state legislatures. Even in the 21st century, states have enormous discretionary sovereign powers vis-à-vis everyday citizens. Between taxes, education, law and order, and many other everyday police powers, U.S. states are still the key locus of connection between government and the governed. Voters disregard or neglect this at their own peril. To ignore or neglect state elections, even while still voting in federal ones, is losing an important way to influence over or voice concerns about the state and country in which we live.
 U.S. Const. Amend. X.