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A progressive’s guide to what to watch for on Election Day 2018 — after you vote

A lot is on the ballot on Tuesday. Here are the things ThinkProgress will be watching most closely.

Voters line up to cast their ballot just before the polls open in the mid-term election on Tuesday in Miami.
Voters line up to cast their ballot just before the polls open in the mid-term election on Tuesday in Miami. (PHOTO CREDIT: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

On Tuesday, Americans will elect 435 U.S. Representatives, 35 U.S. Senators, 36 governors, more than 6,000 state legislators, and a whole lot of statewide, county, and local officials. They’ll also vote on hundreds of ballot initiatives, referenda, and constitutional amendments. While the biggest question — which party will control Congress — will likely get the most media attention, there are many others that will matter a great deal for the future of the republic.

Here are some of the major questions that we at ThinkProgress will be watching closely as the results come in:

Will young people vote?

Surveys indicate that young people are less cynical and more progressive than previous generations. On issues like abortion rights, LGBTQ equality, cannabis policy, and gun violence reduction, younger voters have the potential to tilt the nation’s policies leftward — but only if they actually turn out to vote. And in previous elections, many did not.

The 2018 elections could thus depend on whether younger voters show up.

There are encouraging signs. Around the country, millennial candidates are running for state legislature and other offices. Young Americans concerned about climate change have flocked to help elect pro-green candidates and environmental groups have worked to ensure that more sign pledges to vote for candidates who care about the planet. And since February’s mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, students’ concerns about the rash of gun violence have led to a national effort to make sure every 18-year-old citizen who can vote does so and supports candidates who will stand up to the National Rifle Assocaition.

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Reports are that there has been a clear surge in early voting by young people in the lead up to Tuesday’s election. The results could well hinge on whether that trend continues on Election Day.

Will American citizens be able to vote?

As has been the case in recent years, the lead-up to the election has often been the story of legislative and court battles for whether it will be easy, difficult, or impossible for American citizens to take part in the election at all.

With noted voter suppressionists in some states overseeing their own elections as well as others’, the right to vote at all is not a given in many parts of the country. In Georgia, for example, gubernatorial nominee and current Secretary of State Brian Kemp (R) has done everything possible to dampen turnout — candidly telling supporters that he might lose “especially if everybody uses and exercises their right to vote.” His voter suppression efforts have included an illegal attempt to flag as non-citizens voters whose signatures his office did not deem an exact match.

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In North Dakota, the effort to keep Native Americans from voting has taken on new forms as courts refused to block a strict voter ID law that is presenting unique challenges to citizens in Indian Country who live in homes that do not have an official street address. Even as tribal leaders have worked to provide photo identification cards for these voters, the state has apparently changed their addresses in government database without permission, rendering the addresses on the cards a non-match.

In Kansas, officials moved the only polling place in a community with a high immigrant population to outside of the city limits — and outside the range of public transportation.

And for the second election in a row, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY) sent out mailings to voters that contained an incorrect deadline for absentee ballots to be returned.

But voting rights advocates have had some legal victories as well.  In Missouri, a judge rejected a strict voter ID law a month before the election. In Tennessee, Shelby County’s electoral board was forced to allow thousands of citizens whose voter registration applications were incomplete due to things like missing addresses and illegible handwriting to resolve those problems on Election Day and still participate.

But with the Trump administration’s Department of Justice not lifting a finger to protect voting rights, Election 2018 will be an interesting test of whether citizens can actually participate in the democratic process.

What will the new congressional majority look like?

Fueled by anger at Donald Trump’s sexism and alleged serial sexual predation — and at this party’s refuse to stand up to it — record numbers of women ran and won primaries this year. For the first time ever, white men make up a minority of Democratic nominees.

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If Democrats win the 23 or more new House seats needed to take a majority, that will likely be because a lot of those women win. And in House, Senate, and governors races, that will likely mean historic victories for Black women, Native Americans, Latinx, Muslim, and openly LGBTQ candidates.

Should that happen, expect a much more diverse cadre of congressional leaders and committee chairs. On the other hand, should Republicans hold the House, don’t expect much change. The GOP mostly missed out of the Year of the Woman and would undoubtedly remain heavily dominated by straight white Christian men.

Will the overt and dog-whistle fear-mongering campaign work?

After Trump’s surprise victory in 2016 relied on exploitation of racial and xenophobic divisions, many in the GOP have tried to replicate his anti-immigrant, Islamophobic, anti-Semtic, racist, and sexist approach for the midterms. Tuesday’s results will be an early verdict on whether it works.

Like with Trump, some of the divisive bigotry on display has been dog-whistle messaging aimed at people’s prejudices and some has been more explicit.

Candidates and party committees have embraced coded anti-Semitic language and conspiracy theories around the country — rhetoric that may have inspired a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and an assassination attempt on a Jewish philanthropist just days before the election.

But other candidates have been anything but coded. In Arkansas and Missouri, for example, radio ads funded in large part by rich white conservatives urged Black women to vote for Republicans to stop modern day lynchings. In Georgia, racist robocalls by someone impersonating Oprah Winfrey delivered racist and anti-Semitic messages in opposition to Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, who is Black — while Trump’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue used a racist term to describe the importance of the race. Florida gubernatorial nominee Ron DeSantis (R) used racist slurs against Democratic nominee Andrew Gillum. Virginia Senate nominee Corey Stewart (R) also embraced racism and ran ads warning of an “illegal alien invasion.” Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and his allies ran Willie Horton-style smear ads tying his opponent to a convicted cop killer because the Democrat once donated to an award-winning non-profit news show. And even some in the Republican leadership backed off of supporting Rep. Steve King (R-IA) after his racist and nativist rhetoric.

Trump’s closing argument for his party’s midterm campaign was a dishonest and  rabidly racist anti-immigrant ad. But candidates across the country followed his lead with ads falsely suggesting Democrats would allow unfettered immigration by dangerous felons and gangs.

If this strategy seems familiar, it’s because it is a virtual repeat of the 2017 campaign in Virginia, in which the Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie tried to scare voters into electing him by suggesting Democratic nominee Ralph Northam wanted to allow violent gangs of immigrants to flourish. Northam won that race by a large margin, but Republicans clearly still think the strategy will work elsewhere.

Will ballot initiatives again be a way to circumvent conservative lawmakers to advance progressive change?

In recent elections, even as Democrats have lost ground, progressive policies have frequently advanced through ballot referenda, voter initiatives, and other types of direct democracy.

Tuesday could see more progressive changes. In many of those cases, it would be voters circumventing their conservative lawmakers to advance popular policy changes — though in a couple, it would be voters reaffirming their legislature’s decisions against popular challenges.

Voters in Colorado will render their verdict on a ballot initiative — fiercely opposed by the fossil fuel industry — to provide a buffer between residents’ homes and drilling sites. Florida voters will consider a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to more than a million former felons who have served their time. Nebraskans, Utahans, and Montanans will vote on whether to expand Medicaid — and Utah voters will also consider a medical marijuana measure. Arkansas and Missouri voters will consider increases to the states’ minimum wage laws.

And in Massachusetts, voters can vote yes on Question 3 to stop an effort by anti-LGBTQ extremists that would undo nondiscrimination protections for transgender people.

Who will draw the election lines for the next decade?

The biggest challenge for Democrats this year is that in 2011, Republican legislators and governors in key swing states muscled through gerrymandered maps that set the playing field on an uphill slant for a decade. Because 2010 was an especially calamitous year for Democrats, Republicans were able to control the redistricting process in places like Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Even though more Americans voted for a Democrat for Congress in 2012, for example, Republicans controlled a comfortable majority thanks to maps that packed Democratic voters into solidly blue districts and left surrounding areas red-leaning.

After the 2020 census, congressional seats will be reapportioned again and states will again decide their federal and state legislative maps.  But the 2021 maps could be shaped significantly by two things happening on Tuesday.

The first is that states like Michigan, Missouri, and Utah will consider ballot questions that would change the way the redistricting happens — policy changes that would make the map-making less partisan. Several states have adopted changes like this in recent years, aimed at making sure that the states’ voters truly pick their lawmakers, rather than the other way around.

And the other way is that many of the state legislators and governors that will be elected on Tuesday will be in office for the next four years. In the many states where legislators and governors decide on the maps, this means that by electing a new governor or legislative majority today, a state might be ensuring that their maps for the next decade will not look like the ones that have given the GOP a pronounced advantage for the past seven years.