7 down-ballot election trends that could change America

·18 min read

The first Tuesday in November is about more than just who gets to be the next president. This week, hundreds of decisions across all levels of government will go into shaping the future of the country. In addition to all 435 seats in the House of Representatives, there are 120 statewide ballot measures, 33 Senate seats, 11 gubernatorial races — and that's not to mention the countless local elections for state senators, representatives, judges, and city council members that are happening, too.

Here's how to make sense of some of the biggest narratives of the 2020 down-ballot elections.

1. America grapples with its racist past

The murder of George Floyd this spring renewed important conversations about racial justice in America, and the slow progress toward a more equal society. Voters in four states, though, will have the opportunity to actively undo symbols, names, and laws that are holdovers from the Jim Crow era as soon as Tuesday.

One of the biggest ballot measures will be in Mississippi, where voters are deciding whether or not to adopt the design of a new state flag, which replaces their older flag that controversially incorporated the Confederate Battle Cross. In 2001, 64 percent of Mississippi voters rejected picking a new flag, and chose to reaffirm the use of the Confederate symbol to represent their state. This time around, voting "no" on the new design — which features a white magnolia flower and the words "In God We Trust" — will instead trigger a 2021 special election to vote on an alternate, rather than revert back to the Confederate symbol. As Reuben Anderson, the first Black justice to serve on the Mississippi Supreme Court, described it, no matter what happens, the ballot measure is "a message that we live in the future and not in the past."

Mississippi will also consider changing a law from the 1890s that was enacted specifically to limit Black candidates from office, Bloomberg Government reports. Other states are also blowing the dust off their law books: In Nebraska and Utah, voters will consider eliminating passages from their state constitutions, which date back to the 19th century and permit slavery as a punishment for crimes. In Rhode Island, voters will consider removing "Providence Plantations" from the state's official name (though voters overwhelmingly rejected a similar measure in 2010). But as the state's Democratic Sen. Harold Metts argued, "Rhode Island built its economy on being a leader in the slave trade in colonial times … We aren't proud of that history, and we must stop glorifying a word that is inescapably associated with that terrible past."

The recent past, too, is up for reconsideration: In California, Proposition 16 would reverse a measure that California passed 24 years ago, which banned race- and sex-based affirmative action. While the measure is backed by California senator and Democratic vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris and endorsed by The New York Times as being "a big help to women, Black and Latino students, and business owners," only 31 percent of voters in the state say they support it, with 22 percent still undecided.

Historically, Americans tend to be reluctant to reject what may be perceived as local heritage and tradition — even if those histories are racist or oppressive. The 2020 ballot measures will give a good indication of how ready Americans are to reckon with that past. Some of these ballot measures might be dismissed as symbolic, but that "would be the understatement of the last two centuries," argued the organizers of End Slavery Nebraska, who pointed out that "removing this exception clause sends a powerful message about who we are and what we believe."

Races to watch: Mississippi Ballot Measure 3, State Flag Referendum; Rhode Island Question 1, Name Change Amendment; California Proposition 16, Repeal Proposition 209 Affirmative Action Amendment

2. Democracy reform ripples across the nation

Three states will consider ballot measures that could potentially result in major changes to how they hold future elections. "Americans are ... looking to the future and asking big questions: What comes next? How do we begin our political healing? And how do we restore our collective political voice, without being drowned out by those who shout loudest?" explained CNN.

In Massachusetts and Alaska, voters will consider joining Maine in transitioning to a ranked-choice voting system. The system has been described as both "the best road forward to save democracy" and "nothing short of a constitutional revolution," and asks voters to order candidates by preference, rather than cast a single vote for a single person. In order to win, a candidate must earn a majority, rather than a plurality, of votes, leading to multiple runoff rounds until that's achieved.

In Alaska specifically, the measure would "also establish a top-four primary, where the top four vote-getters in the primary advance to the general election ballot, regardless of party," Amanda Zoch, a policy specialist at the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, told Politico. Meanwhile in Florida, voters are considering making the switch to a "jungle primary" system, which would end "closed" primaries and allow all voters, regardless of political affiliation, to vote in the statewide primaries, with the top two candidates advancing to run against each other in a general election regardless of party. The Democratic and Republican Parties of Florida both oppose the measure, while backer All Voters Vote argues that "by giving all voters a chance to vote, politicians will become answerable to the majority of voters, not just a select few."

In Colorado, voters will decide whether or not to join 14 other states and Washington D.C. in the "National Popular Vote Interstate Compact," which is "an attempt to make the Electoral College obsolete without actually removing it from the Constitution" by having states "agree to bind their presidential electors to the winner of the national popular vote, even if most people in the state chose a different candidate," Colorado Public Radio reports. The measure, however, would only actually take effect once it's adopted by enough states to represent at least 270 Electoral College votes, the minimum for winning.

Between reconsidering the Electoral College and the way votes are counted, though, it's clear that election reform is on the minds of many across the country. But as for the question of "what comes next?," only Wednesday morning will tell.

Races to watch: Alaska Ballot Measure 2, Top-Four Ranked-Choice Voting and Campaign Finance Laws Initiative; Colorado Proposition 113, National Popular Vote Interstate Compact Referendum

3. QAnon could go (even more) mainstream

Twenty-seven candidates who have "endorsed or given credence" to the QAnon conspiracy theory secured spots on the ballot in November, Media Matters reports. And while there are wacky fringe candidates every election season, the results on Tuesday could indicate if QAnon, which the FBI has listed as a domestic terrorism threat, is managing to get a political foothold in addition to its cultural popularity.

Perhaps the highest profile race is that of Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is running for Georgia's 14th congressional district. Greene has described "Q," the anonymous message board poster at the center of the conspiracy theory, as a "patriot" and someone who is "on the same page as us, and he is very pro-Trump," also calling the election "a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles out." She is virtually certain to win her election in the "solid Republican" district, especially since her Democratic challenger dropped out of the race in September.

More competitive is the race for Colorado's 3rd Congressional District, which sees Lauren Boebert running against Democrat Diane Mitsch Bush. Boebert has flirted with QAnon conspiracy theories, claiming that "if this is real, then it could be really great for our country," and saying she is "very familiar" with the group's beliefs. She's also backpedaled in recent weeks, claiming that she is "not into conspiracies." FiveThirtyEight shows Bush with only a 1 point lead as of Oct. 29, but as Ryan Cooper writes for The Week, even if the Democrat wins, the race is still "a window into the present and probable future of the Republican Party — a movement in which grievance politics have completely swallowed any kind of substantive agenda."

Also worth keeping an eye on are candidates like Wisconsin's Tom Tiffany, who was one of the 17 House Republicans to vote no on a resolution condemning QAnon earlier this month. Tiffany faces Democrat Tricia Zunker again in November, after coasting to victory against her in a May special election with 57 percent of the vote. Tiffany's QAnon vote, though, has become a major point of attack in the late stages of the race. "Conspiracy theories and movements like QAnon dehumanize citizens, incite violence, and threaten our democratic institutions," Zunker told USA Today. "Rep. Tom Tiffany is so extreme that he won't join his own party leaders in condemning this dangerous conspiracy theory and the violence it promotes."

It's not just QAnon sympathizers that are on the ballot, after all; it's the tolerance of the conspiracy by mainstream Republicans, as well.

Races to watch: Colorado's 3rd Congressional District election

4. Green Wave, Part 2?

We're now four years out from the "green wave" of cannabis legalization in 2016, with support growing across the nation year by year. But marijuana initiatives are no longer the exclusive purview of "hippie" states out west like Colorado, Washington, and Oregon. Heck, even John Boehner is now for it.

Which brings us to 2020, with five more states considering adopting medical or recreational cannabis laws. One such state is Arizona, which just four years ago failed to legalize recreational marijuana with a narrow 51.3 percent of voters saying nay. Mississippi, which Rolling Stones notes is "one of the most conservative states in America," is also considering marijuana, though for medical purposes only. Curiously, the state has two initiatives, one put forward by citizens and an "alternative proposed by Republican state legislators" that "presents a tightly constricted and largely ineffective version of the same initiative," Leafly writes in its guide for the state.

South Dakota is another deep red state that is voting on both medical and recreational marijuana, despite currently having possession laws that Leafly calls possibly "the most Draconian in the country," including the fact that "just a small amount of marijuana in South Dakota carries a potential penalty of a year in jail and a $2,000 fine," and that individuals who test positive for the drug in the state are subject to penalty even if they'd consumed it in a state where it was legal. Montana and New Jersey round out the states considering recreational marijuana this year.

Meanwhile, two different potentially groundbreaking drug measures are appearing on the Oregon ballot. Measure 110 would make the state the first in the nation to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of heroin, cocaine, LSD, oxycodone, methamphetamines, and some other drugs. "The idea behind this groundbreaking effort is simple: people suffering from addiction need help, not criminal punishments," argues Theshia Naidoo, managing director of criminal justice law and policy at Drug Policy Action. Opponents fear the measure goes too far, though, and risks "normalizing" the drugs. Oregon is also considering legalizing psilocybin mushrooms to be distributed by licensed providers; the drug, more commonly referred to as psychedelic or "magic" mushrooms, has been shown to offer relief to people with PTSD, anxiety, or terminal illnesses, The Associated Press reports.

We've certainly come a long way from 2014! But with two-thirds of Americans supporting marijunana legalization in 2020, it's no surprise to see the measures popping up even in conservative strongholds, while more liberal states are taking steps to expand their already-existing laws. Marijuana Business Daily reports that legalization backers are outspending opponents 36-to-1, and Rolling Stone writes that "polling indicates the [marijuana] measures will pass in all five states."

Races to watch: Oregon Measure 109, Psilocybin Mushroom Services Program Initiative; Oregon Measure 110, Drug Decriminalization and Addiction Treatment Initiative; Arizona Proposition 207, Marijuana Legalization Initiative; South Dakota Constitutional Amendment A, Marijuana Legalization Initiative

5. Criminal justice reform lands in the spotlight

Decriminalization isn't the only law and order-related policy on the ballot, though. Across the nation, voters will be considering "hundreds" of races that have "implications for criminal justice," The Appeal writes, though many were in the works prior to this year's tensions between protesters and police. More narrowly, Ballotpedia identifies "21 local police-related ballot measures in 16 jurisdictions in nine states" that were "proposed in the wake of George Floyd's death on May 25, 2020."

Citizens Police Oversight Commissions, for example, are being considered in several cities that have seen major clashes between protesters and law enforcement this year, including Philadelphia, Portland, Oregon, and at least three other major cities; similar oversight groups are also being considered in Washington State's King County, which includes Seattle, as well as Oakland, San Jose, and California's Sonoma County. On the other side of the coin, in DuPage County, Illinois, voters will consider "pass[ing] an advisory measure affirming that law enforcement and public safety are the county's top budget priorities," Governing reports, an apparent pushback on movements to "defund the police."

Criminal justice is on the ballot too. Californians will consider allowing people who are on parole to vote and run for office, eliminating cash bail, as well as Proposition 20, which would, by contrast, walk back some of the more progressive policies passed by the state in recent years by adding additional crimes to the list of violent felonies and requiring DNA collection for some misdemeanors.

Another big measure is in Oklahoma, where voters will get to choose whether or not to change the state's constitution to prevent prosecutors and judges from using previous nonviolent felony convictions to enhance the sentences for nonviolent crimes. "Supporters claim that the measure would help reduce overly punitive prison sentences and cut Oklahoma's prison population, which was the largest in the country — and the world — as of 2018," Vox writes, while "opponents claim that reducing prison sentences, particularly for people with criminal records, would lead to more crime."

And in Kentucky, voters are again considering Marsy's Law after it was approved in 2018, only to be thrown out for problems with vague ballot language. Named after Marsalee Nicholas, who was killed by her boyfriend in 1983, similar laws have been passed in 11 states and "generally add constitutional protections to existing state guarantees that victims or their families are consulted and notified at key steps in the criminal justice process," including giving victims "legal standing in court, allowing them to ask a judge to step in if they feel they've been denied their rights," The Marshall Project explains. The law is controversial, though, because of the wishy-washy use of "victim" before a trial has taken place or a crime even been established; Marsy's Law, for example, has been invoked to protect the names of police who shot civilians, and the ACLU has criticized the legislation for taking the wrong approach to victim advocacy.

Americans are divided on their beliefs about how justice should be carried out and the role of the police, and that's especially true this year. How the dozens of criminal justice reform races swing could give us a good idea about the lasting legacy of the George Floyd protests too — and whether it results in more empathy and humanity in how we approach justice, or a tighter fist.

Races to watch: Portland, Oregon, Measure 26-217, Police Oversight Board Charter Amendment; California Proposition 25, Replace Cash Bail with Risk Assessments Referendum; Oklahoma State Question 805, Criminal History in Sentencing and Sentence Modification Initiative; Kentucky Constitutional Amendment 1, Marsy's Law Crime Victims Rights Amendment

6. Reproductive rights are in the hands of voters

Judge Amy Coney Barrett's appointment to the Supreme Court has amplified the conversation around reproductive rights in recent weeks — but 2020 was always going to be a big year for questions of women's health and access to abortion.

In Colorado, a potential abortion ban after 22 weeks of pregnancy (with exceptions only in cases where it's required to save the life of the mother) is being considered by onlookers to be "a test case for anti-abortion ballot initiatives in other states," CNN reports. Colorado is one of just seven states in the nation that doesn't limit abortion at any stage, making it a popular location for out-of-state people to visit for abortions later in pregnancy. While supporters of the law say it would repair "one of the darkest secrets in the state," Colorado Public Radio notes that similar attempts to limit abortion in the state have failed three times in the last 12 years.

Louisiana, meanwhile, is considering a constitutional amendment that would clarify that the right to abortion and abortion funding are not part of the state's constitution, setting it apart from 13 states with constitutions that do spell out a woman's right to choose. To date, Louisiana has struggled to restrict abortion — the Supreme Court struck down the state's requirement for doctors to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals in order to perform abortions earlier this summer, and its "heartbeat" ban was blocked last year — but while some have dismissed Amendment 1 as being a further waste of time, it is also "described as a trigger to outlaw abortion in Louisiana if Roe v. Wade were to ever be overturned," KSLA reports. Also surprising: the bill is being championed by state Sen. Katrina Jackson, a Democrat.

There are plenty of down-ballot contests between candidates worth watching too, as Elle's comprehensive guide points out. Two in particular stand out: In Arizona, the race between incumbent Republican Sen. Martha McSally and Democrat Mark Kelly, with McSally having voted to limit patients' access to Planned Parenthood, while Kelly, by contrast, "supports every woman's right to choose how and when to start her family." Similarly, watch the gubernatorial election in Missouri, where the state's auditor, Democrat Nicole Galloway, is challenging Republican Jim Parson. At this point, Parson has a "relatively stable lead," having said he wants to make the state "the most pro-life state in the country," while Galloway has slammed his eight-week abortion ban as "outrageous."

Races to watch: Colorado Proposition 115, 22-Week Abortion Ban Initiative; United States Senate special election in Arizona

7. The Year of the LGBTQ candidate?

If 2018 was the year of women in politics, then 2020 may be the year of the LGBTQ candidate. At least 574 openly lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer candidates are on the ballot in November, according to the LGBTQ Victory Fund, including Delaware's Sarah McBride, who is "on track to become … the first transgender state senator anywhere in the U.S."

Other potential firsts include Democrats Ritchie Torres and Mondaire Jones, both of New York, who would share the distinction of being the first openly Black gay men in Congress if they win, NBC News reports. California's Georgette Gomez would be the first openly Latina LGBTQ candidate in Congress if she beats fellow Democrat Sara Jacobs, and former U.S. Air Force Capt. and Democrat Gina Ortiz Jones is aiming to beat Republican Tony Gonzales, which would make her both the first openly gay representative from Texas as well as the first Filipino American woman to serve in Congress. Meanwhile, Jon Hoadley is challenging Michigan incumbent Rep. Fred Upton, who has "opposed nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people and voted to ban same-sex marriage," NBC News adds; if Hoadley wins, on the other hand, he'd be the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from Michigan.

"The unprecedented number of LGBT+ candidates running this year coincides with rising support for LGBT+ people in the United States," Reuters reports, and experts say the prevalence and visibility of candidates also helps chip away at any lingering "electability" concerns. Only one state, Alabama, is not fielding an openly LGBTQ candidate at any level of office this year.

Notably, 2020 was also the first year that an openly LGBTQ candidate both won the Iowa caucus and earned presidential primary delegates toward a major party. Democratic challenger Joe Biden and President Trump have both also focused efforts (with mixed results) on courting the LGBTQ vote this election cycle, especially since "in key battleground states like Florida, LGBTQ voters can play a significant role in the outcome of the election," ABC Action News reports.

Better representation also means more LGBTQ-friendly policies around the nation, and race-by-race, voters have the chance to reaffirm that people should not be discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Races to watch: Delaware State Senate elections; Texas' 23rd Congressional District election; Michigan's 6th Congressional District election

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