📬 Want some Southern goodness in your inbox every Friday?
Get Scalawag's latest stories and a run down of what's happening across the South with our weekly newsletter.
"Overcrowded ballots are a form of voter suppression."
Ashley Shelton of Power Coalition Louisiana shared this powerful perspective during the As The South Votes town hall last week, and it's already ringing true for many voters across the country. Here in North Carolina, the ballot for my voting district has 37 offices listed, and my friends in Raleigh also have a hotly debated Affordable Housing Bond referendum.
As many people use lunch breaks, snatchs of time in between classes or clients, or the bookends of their day to vote in person, time is truly of the essence at the polls. Compound that with the incredibly long lines that many voters are experiencing at early voting locations across the South, and these long ballots become truly exhausting.
In fact, there is a term for this: ballot fatigue.
Ballot fatigue refers to the mental exhaustion from going through an overcrowded ballot, when many voters end up making fewer selections as they get past the national seats. This often occurs when a voter is seeing their local ballot for the first time in the voting booth, but also happens when they sit down to research government positions, initiatives, and referenda ahead of time.
The way North Carolina's ballots are set up, the further down the ballot you go the more localized the government positions become; the first bubble you fill is for president, and the last is for the local district court judge or a local bond referendum. These lower-down races are the ones that affect voters almost immediately—influencing everything from school curriculum to the quality of drinking water.
I thought I was prepared when I went to vote during the primaries. But once I stepped inside the voting booth, all of that research from the night before vanished as I stared at the seemingly endless list of names and circles before me. This time, it's crucial to do your research on the lesser known state and local offices—because what does the labor commissioner do besides inspect elevators?
Do your research on local elections before you head to the polls—or before your absentee ballot arrives—with Scalawag's easy tool. Enter your address to automatically see your personalized sample ballot.
So many offices and races tend to get lost in the sauce of presidential race coverage, but these decisions impact us all. Here are some universal seats I am paying attention to at the local level:
According to NC.gov, my state's labor commissioner "is charged with promoting the "health, safety and general well-being" of more than 4 million workers in the state. This office holds broad regulatory powers and enforcement powers, including conducting health and safety inspections of workplaces, investigating work-related accidents and deaths, and enforcing worker's rights. As COVID-19 continues to pose a major threat to workers rights, the labor commissioner can make or break the process of ensuring safe working conditions for our essential workers. The decisions made by the labor commissioner affect nearly everyone in the state.
If you're not a caregiver to children, then chances are you do not think a whole lot about your local school board. But, if you are deeply concerned about Trump's recent executive orders on "diversity training," they're one of the first lines of defense for protecting free speech. School boards play a major role in choosing curriculums. Recent surveys indicate students (and adults) across the South lack the knowledge and context of basic historic events and founding documents—and that ignorance is a reflection of the textbooks that our students receive in the classroom. They are also on the frontlines of school funding, something North Carolinians are concerned with now more than ever, after a judge mandated in the landmark Leandro case that the state appropriate $427 million dollars to help close the state's enormous rural-urban student achievement gap. Having strong advocates on the school board for equity and diversity in school education is more important than ever.
See also: Hope in the rural South: Black students combat segregation, poverty and dwindling school funding
A lack of interaction with most government institutions keeps many of us from understanding the function of our judicial system. Rarely is this more true than with our criminal justice system. Thankfully, with the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement and powerful documentaries like Ava DuVernay's 13th and the Amazon series Free Meek, more Americans are starting to grasp just how much power judges have to not only impact the lives of individuals, but the fabric of entire communities. North Carolina's sitting Chief Justice Cheri Beasley is the first African American woman to ever serve as our chief justice. In the wake of COVID-19, Judge Beasley took quick and decisive action to protect North Carolina residents in court and at home. Governor Cooper's executive order and Chief Beasley's suspension of eviction hearings also kept many residents who were at risk for homelessness safely in their homes for the summer. She is also outspoken in her understanding of how racism has impacted people in North Carolina's judicial system, and her dedication to prioritize racial equity—and, to some voters' confusion, her seat is up for election now, despite being appointed by Governor Roy Cooper in February of 2019.
GOP challenger Paul Newby is a classic conservative with endorsements from the North Carolina Troopers Association and the National Federation of Independent Business. While Justice Newby describes himself as fair and impartial, in 2019 he commented on the election of Justice Anita Earls: "In 2018, the left put $1.5 million dollars to get their (US Rep. Alexandra Ortasio Cortez)-person on the Court. Imagine seven AOCs on the state Supreme Court… Well, folks, we got six."
Commissioner of Agriculture
The commissioner of agriculture is in charge of the more than 1,400 employees and 24 divisions that make up the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. Their primary role is "maintaining and enhancing the ability of agriculture to produce an adequate supply of food and fiber" as well as enforcing regulatory programs. While the tech and financial industries are growing rapidly in North Carolina, the global pandemic has shown us that supporting small farms and local foodways is essential to our state's health and economy. Jenna Wadsworth, a progressive Democrat, is running to unseat GOP Incumbent Steve Troxler. She is amplifying why young urban voters should be interested in the commissioner of agriculture rates.
See also: COVID-19 hit Arkansas poultry workers at an 'alarming rate' as state and industry officials looked on
The commissioner of agriculture is tasked with protecting the environment and curbing climate change, something that has become a massive issue for communities adjacent to North Carolina's industrial hog farms, as well as an increase in hurricane activity and other weather disasters. The second issue North Carolinians might not realize is at stake is cannabis regulation. Hemp (CBD) is legal in North Carolina, but we still have some of the most severe marijuana laws in the country. Having an advocate for cannabis legalization in the powerful Council of State does not only have the potential to majorly boost our economy, impact the many North Carolinians (especially young Black and brown folks) trapped in the criminal justice system for a victimless offense.
This year's presidential election is, without question, one of the most important races in our lifetime. But the greater truth is that there is no such thing as an unimportant political race. Each day, we are interacting with systems, institutions, and regulations created and maintained by elected officials. From driving on the highway, to checking the health inspection grade of a restaurant, to shopping at the Farmer's Market—the work of state and local officials is all around us and shapes our daily realities. While admitting that the voting experience can be oppressive and exhausting—outside and inside of the voting booth.
You don't have to make the same mistake that I made and attempt to keep piles of election information in your head. Use Scalawag's sample ballot tool to get familiar with it before it's to cast your vote.Check out Common Cause for easy-to-read and accurate candidate information. This is how we exercise our voting power to the fullest.