Beyond the White House: How Today’s Vote Matters for Racial Justice

Core questions about reproductive health, immigrant and workers rights, unions, criminal justice and education are on the table at the state and congressional level.

By Seth Freed Wessler Nov 06, 2012

Nearly all our national attention today is focused on the grand battle for the White House. The story goes that its outcome will determine the fundamental shape of the country, our place in the world and our approach to ongoing domestic crises. Often lost in this consuming story about the mighty office of the president is that votes cast in down ballot races and on ballot measures will be at least as consequential to our collective future. Core questions about reproductive health, immigrant and workers rights, unions, criminal justice and education are on the table at the state and congressional level.

The stakes are high and we’ll keep you updated on what matters most for racial justice. Here’s some of what we’ll be following into the night. Check back for live blogging of the returns and the night’s news starting at 6 p.m. and continuing until the winner is declared.

Abortion, Prison and the Right to Organize: Ballot Initiatives On Racial Justice

The rights of people of color, women, workers and immigrants will surely be deliberated in the months and years ahead by our elected officials. But they’re also being decided right now, as citizens in most states cast votes on ballot initiates.

Unions have been out on the doors in life or death fights over a set of collective bargaining ballot initiatives in Idaho, South Dakota, California and Michigan.

In Michigan, unions are fighting on two fronts to protect collective bargaining. Proposal 2 is a first of its kind attempt to enshrine in the state’s constitution collective bargaining rights for public and private sector employees. Coming off the heels of last year’s anti-public worker fights in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere, the amendment would be a breath of fresh air for labor. At the same time, Michigan unions are fighting off Proposition 1, which would ratify the state’s "emergency manager" laws that grant gubernatorial appointees the right to suspend labor agreements.

In Idaho and South Dakota, voters are asked to accept or reject bills passed in the last legislative session that stripped teachers of their right to bargain for pay and benefits and eliminated teacher tenure.

California voters are considering a slew of ballot initiatives, including two criminal justice questions. They decide whether to commute the sentences of over 700 people on death row to life in prison. Then they’re asked to revise the state’s three strikes law so that mandatory life sentences are handed only to people who are convicted of "serious" felonies. Most people incarcerated on three strikes laws are locked up for non-violent crimes. And most of these folks are people of color. About 45 percent of the 8,800 current third strikers are black, though African Americans are only about 6.5 percent of the state’s population.

Elsewhere on the racial justice front, Oklahoma voters decide whether they want to ban affirmative action in state hiring, contracting and education, Minnesotans consider a voter ID initiative, and Maryland voters whether to uphold the state’s DREAM Act.

Marriage equality is on ballots in Maine, Maryland, Washington and Minnesota and reproductive rights ballot initiatives are put to voters in Florida and Montana. Colorado, Oregon, and Washington voters consider legalizing pot.

Hard Fought Senate Races

As anyone who’s been awake for the last couple of years knows, existential battles over the roll of government and the economy have dominated the political world. These fights animate the most important congressional fights that we’ll be watching today. Republican control of the House is likely secure and Democrats are unlikely to lose control of the Senate, though it’s close. The Democrat’s fight to keep the Senate will ultimately come down to a number of key races that pit economic progressives against tea party conservatives locked in contests fundamentally about the vision we hold for the country.

In Ohio, which is broadly expected to be decisive in the presidential election and the partisan balance of the Senate, voters are deciding whether to send incumbent Sherrod Brown back to the Senate to wage what he’s called "a defense of what government does well."

The Senate race in Wisconsin, meanwhile, has become a proxy of sorts over that state’s bruising battles over labor rights. Tammy Baldwin, a progressive who would be the country’s first openly gay Senator, has come out swinging for workers in the state where Gov. Scott Walker tore public workers to shreds in 2011.

In Massachusetts, consumer rights cruisader and populist favorite Elizabeth Warren is challenging incumbent Scott Brown, who claimed Ted Kennedy’s vacant seat in 2010.

Other core racial justice issues are at the center of a set of key races in other states. In Arizona, the race between Republican Jeff Flake and Democrat Richard Carmona, a Puerto Rican from Harlem, is widely seen as a referendum of sorts on the state’s multi-year conservative orgy that climaxed with the passage of SB 1070.

And reproductive justice has become a hot issue in the Senate races because of some horrific rhetorical flourishes on the part of a couple of white men. In Missouri, Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, was fighting a tough battle against Rep. Todd Akin until Akin decided to wax pseudoscientific about "legitimate rape." Similarly, in Indiana Richard Mourdock, a tea partier, is at risk of losing to Democrat Joe Donnelly since Mourdock said in a recent debate that "when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen." The comment gave Donnelly a boost, which is arguably undeserved since he ‘s also an abortion rights foe.

GOP’s Continued Surge in State Legislatures

When the tea party wave in 2010 put Republicans in control of two-thirds of state legislative chambers and three-fifths of governor’s mansions, they vowed an aggressive strategy to push the agenda state-by-state. They made good on their promise and struck major blows against voting rights, reproductive rights, the safety net and immigrant rights. They’re now vowing to reject the Medicaid expansion in the Affordable Care Act.

Because of GOP-led redistricting in 2010, Republicans are likely to maintain most of the 2010 gains. In a number of states, they’re now poised to add to their already overwhelming hold on state governments.

Perhaps most interesting in this regard is Arkansas, the last remaining Democratic outpost in the South. With the support of lots of money from national tea party-affiliated groups, Republicans could wrestle control of both houses of the state legislature.

In at least five states where partisan control of government is now mixed, Republicans could gain control of both legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion. If Republican gubernatorial candidates win in Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire and North Carolina, they’ll take the office away from Democrats and assume power with the backing of GOP-run legislatures. Iowa Republicans have a good chance of taking the Senate, which would put the party in full control of the state government.

On the flipside, in a few states where Republican governors and legislatures have a firm hold, Democrats may wrestle away one legislative chamber. In Maine and Pennsylvania, for example, Democrats may pry their statehouses from Republicans.

We’ll follow results for all of these races and ballot initiatives throughout the night.