While most eyes are trained on the contest between President Trump and Joe Biden, down-ballot races and state ballot measures will also have major consequences for racial justice, immigration, reproductive rights and more. “The issues and policies that affect people day in and day out are often determined on the bottom of the ballot,” says Ronald Newman, the national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
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AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
Yes, today is Election Day. All eyes are on the battle between President Trump and Joe Biden as people are heading to the polls across the country, but not for the first time. This is the final day of voting. In fact, over 100 million people, three-quarters of the total vote of 2016, have already voted. But down-ballot races and state ballot measures are also having major consequences for racial justice, immigration, ranked-choice voting, reproductive rights.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ronald Newman, the national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ronald, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. So many issues are on the ballot across the country, maybe not as much as in the past, because of the pandemic and what it takes to get a ballot initiative on the ballot. But if you can talk about the significance of these and start off with the issue of racial justice, what you’re following?
RONALD NEWMAN: Absolutely. And thank you, Amy, thank you, Juan, for having me this morning.
We say all the time that civil rights and civil liberties are determined up and down the ballot. And while there will inevitably be outsized attention on the presidential race, on Joe Biden, on Donald Trump, the issues and policies that affect people day in and day out are often determined at the bottom of the ballot, sometimes on the back of the ballot. And so, we, as an institution, are very much engaged in those races, in those ballot measures.
For instance, 805, a ballot measure in Oklahoma, will determine whether thousands of people, including lots of people of color, will be set free. Oklahoma has had among the highest incarceration rates in the nation for years, and this ballot measure will go a long way towards pulling back on extreme sentencing.
In addition, if you think about Prop 16 out in California, we are trying to restore affirmative action in the contexts of education, hiring and public contracting, and so minority-led businesses and women-led businesses have a real opportunity to make progress and to move forward.
And so, those issues come up all the time, not only in ballot measures, but also in down-ballot candidate races, the district attorney races, the sheriff races. These are the elections that have a real tangible effect on the lived experiences of people across the country.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Ron, could you talk about Nebraska and “Vote for 428,” why that is an issue of racial justice, as well?
RONALD NEWMAN: Absolutely. So, in Nebraska, we will hopefully be able to celebrate a victory this evening and put an end to predatory payday lending. Sadly, payday loans have been issued in Nebraska for years. And the interest rates on these loans average upwards of 400%. And so, our ballot measure would end that and would put a cap on the APR associated with loans at 36%.
And why does this matter? It matters because when you look at the numbers, you find that these types of predatory, abusive loans are disproportionately issued to people of color. And so, every year, as Pew Research has reported, $28 million in fines and fees are pulled out of the pockets of Nebraskans — and not Nebraskans overall, because most Nebraskans don’t use payday loans, but we’re talking about the most vulnerable Nebraskans, including, disproportionately, people of color. And these payday lending shops set themselves up in communities of color at outsized rates, even when you adjust for income. And so, as a matter of racial justice, we are fighting hard to end these abusive, predatory loans.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you’ve also put the spotlight on several county sheriff races in the South as, again, helping to end policies that especially target undocumented or immigrant workers, in places like Charleston and in several counties in Georgia. Could you talk about those?
RONALD NEWMAN: Yeah. So, this work started a few years back. You know, one of the elements of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant agenda has been pulling local police and local sheriff’s deputies into their work. They’ve effectively been deputizing local police officers, who are supposed to be protecting and serving their communities. They’ve deputized those police officers to be immigration agents, often in cases where the populations in these towns, in these cities, in these counties don’t know about it and would not approve of it.
And so, back in 2018, we engaged in a handful of sheriff’s races in North Carolina, and the voters resoundingly chose challengers to the incumbents who ended those agreements with the federal government, with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. And we are again engaged in those battles this year.
And so, three to watch, in particular, are Cobb County, Georgia; Gwinnett County, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina. In each and every one of those cases, there is a challenger to the incumbent who has pledged explicitly, who has committed explicitly to end those agreements on day one, so people within those communities can live in peace and security, knowing that the police officers, who are supposed to be protecting and serving them, are not, in effect, working as immigration agents trying to tear families apart.
AMY GOODMAN: I also wanted to ask you about ranked-choice voting. Massachusetts and Alaska both have ballot initiatives about adopting ranked-choice voting. This would allow voters to rank candidates in order of preference rather than casting a vote for a single candidate. The state of Maine has made history this year by becoming the first state to use ranked-choice voting in a national election, and it could decide who wins the Senate race. The Republican Senator Susan Collins is in a tight race with Democrat Sara Gideon. The Green Party candidate, Lisa Savage, is polling third. Under ranked-choice voting, supporters of the Green candidate could pick the Democrat as their second option, giving the Democrat a potential boost in the second round of vote counting. So, if you could talk about the significance of that, and then these two states, Montana and Alaska, what they’re doing?
RONALD NEWMAN: Yeah. So, ranked-choice voting has been an issue that we’ve tracked for a few years. The voters in Maine passed a ballot measure back in 2016 that established ranked-choice voting within that state. And then we’ve spent the past few years fighting back and forth over whether those new rules would take effect. The ACLU itself was very engaged in 2018 when Republicans in the state sought to pull back or repeal that new voting regime.
But ranked-choice voting holds a significant degree of promise for making our democracy work better. At the heart of that reform is trying to ensure that election results reflect the will of the voters. Maine has struggled through several elections in which the winner of key races secured less than 50% of the vote — in many cases, less than 40% of the vote — in circumstances where it was clear that most people preferred not to have that person take elected office. And so, ranked-choice voting helps to protect against that.
In addition, it helps to protect against what you might call the spoiler effect. I think we’ve all been part of conversations where people have worried about that third-party candidate, that Green Party candidate, siphoning votes away from another candidate. Through ranked-choice voting, you can protect against that occurrence, because the second-choice votes end up getting reallocated if no candidate gets over 50% of the vote.
The last and final piece that advocates have talked about quite a bit in the context of ranked-choice voting is the effect it might have on electoral discourse. If you’re engaged in an election in which the second-choice votes really matter, you might be less inclined to engage in negative campaigning and to make negative attacks against your competitors, because their voters are also important to you.
So, that range of benefits is what the state of Maine is after. And as you noted, it could have a significant effect in the Senate race. And other states, like Massachusetts and Alaska, are also considering taking that step and following states like California and Minnesota that have adopted ranked-choice voting in various places over the years.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you, Ron Newman, for joining us. Ronald Newman is the national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union. And we will be following all these ballot initiatives in our show, our special election show tonight beginning at 9:00 Eastern time, and also in the coming days as this information comes out, as well as, of course, just doing our full election special tonight at 9:00 Eastern time.