Pollsters have named this the "meh midterm." Voters seem to have tuned it out. And that's fine. Following election news day after day is a diversion for dedicated hobbyists, not a condition of responsible citizenship.
But now it's Election Day. And it's time to go vote.
This election, like every election, matters. It matters for reasons we know, and it matters for reasons we don't yet know. But I'm not sure we in the media have done a great job explaining why it matters. We've said a lot about who might win, and we've said a lot about campaign strategies, and we've said a lot about how this election seems to be boring everyone. But I'm not sure we've made the stakes as clear as they could be. So here they are.
1) Health care for 4.8 million people
There are currently dozens of states that have yet to join the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion. If all those states entered the fold, the Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that 4.8 million more people would have health insurance.
The 2014 election could change the lives of those 4.8 million people. Sarah Kliff reports that there are 6,015 state legislature seats up for reelection. Jason Millman notes that voters in 15 states that haven't accepted the Medicaid expansion have governor's elections this year. But a governor often isn't enough — you need a legislature willing to accept the Medicaid expansion, too. And voters in every state are electing new legislators.
If you think insurance improves and even saves lives, then the election is a critical opportunity to help millions of people. If you think Obamacare is a rolling catastrophe, then the election is a chance to keep it from infecting more states.
Either way, the upshot is clear: you should go vote.
2) Raises for 680,000 workers
Voters in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota will consider ballot initiatives to raise their state's minimum wage. So too will voters in Illinois, but their initiative is advisory; the Illinois legislature will still need to pass a law for the increase to take effect.
A lot of people's lives will change if these measures clear. "If all five initiatives pass, and if the Illinois legislature acts in accordance with voters' wishes, about 680,000 workers would get a raise, according to data from the Current Population Survey," writes Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight. "Their median age is 28. Two-thirds are women. A quarter are raising children."
The 2014 election will literally decide their livelihoods. And here, too, you can read the stakes either way. If you believe raising the minimum wage helps workers and does little to reduce employment, then the election is an opportunity to give a lot of workers a much-needed raise. If you believe raising the minimum wage cuts jobs and so, in the end, hurts workers, then a lot of people's jobs are riding on Tuesday's vote.
Either way, the upshot is clear: you should go vote.
3) Four Supreme Court justices are over age 70
To use Donald Rumsfeld's immortal coinage, a Supreme Court retirement is one of those "known unknowns" that make it impossible to write any election off as inconsequential. Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 81. Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy are both 78. Stephen Breyer is 76. And the Court is divided 5-4 on many contentious issues.
With a Supreme Court balanced on that knife's edge, every election has the potential to be among the most important in recent American history. If Republicans take control of the Senate in 2014, then they'll have veto power over any nominees President Obama might pick to fill a vacancy, nominees that could reshape the Court. But if Democrats hold the Senate and, say, Antonin Scalia unexpectedly retires, then the 2014 election might end up swinging control of one of America's three branches of government, with untold consequences that will reverberate for decades.
Today's Supreme Court is the direct result of George W. Bush's contested election. If Al Gore had won the presidency in 2000 and reelection in 2004, then William Rehnquist and Sandra Day O'Connor would likely have been replaced by liberal nominees, and Supreme Court jurisprudence in the years since would have been very different.
The irony, of course, is that people said the 2000 election was one of the least important in history, too.
4) 6,057 of the country's 7,383 state legislative seats are on the ballot
And state legislative seats are way more important than most people realize. I'm just going to outsource this one to John Oliver.
According to Ballotpedia, 87 of the 99 state legislative chambers are holding elections today. All in all, there are 6,057 of the country's 7,383 state legislative seats are on the ballot today.
5) It might let you get high legally
Voters in Alaska, Florida, Oregon and Washington, DC, will decide if they want to join Colorado and Washington in legalizing marijuana.
The different initiatives vary slightly. As German Lopez reports, Alaska's Ballot Measure 2 would let adults 21 and older possess up to one ounce of pot and maintain six marijuana plants, while taxing marijuana at $50 per ounce. Oregon's ballot measure would let adults 21 and older hold eight ounces and four plants, and tax marijuana at $35 an ounce. D.C.'s initiative would let adults 21 and older hold two ounces and six plants, but because D.C. can't set its own budget rules, there would be no tax.
Florida's initiative, meanwhile, would legalize medical marijuana, but not recreational marijuana.
6) The House and the Senate are up for grabs
Elections aren't much of a mystery these days. We have so much polling and early voting information and historical data that the set of outcomes we even imagine to be possible is pretty limited.
But the actual set of possible outcomes isn't limited at all. Every House seat is open. So too are 36 Senate seats. It's true that the House isn't likely to change hands. But if voter turnout was 80 percent rather than 40 percent, it certainly could. We know what's likely to happen, but that doesn't mean we know what will happen.
I'm as guilty of this as anyone, but there's a tendency to let expectations congeal into predictions, and predictions be mistaken for facts. But the facts of the election are that Congress — the most powerful branch of the federal government by far — is completely up for grabs. It all depends on who actually shows up to vote. And who shows up to vote depends, in part, on whether people realize that the election is important, and that their vote matters.
7) Your vote matters more in midterm elections than presidential elections
There's an irony to the fact that so many more people turn out to vote for president than turn out for midterms: the higher turnout of presidential elections means an individual vote is worth more in midterm elections. That's true not just for the races with a national component, like Senate, but for state and local races, which aren't buoyed by presidential turnout.
So don't think of midterm elections as less exciting than presidential elections. Think of them as the elections where you have more of a voice.
8) 2017's majorities will be built on the 2014 election
The crucial majorities that pass legislation are built over many elections. A seat Democrats lose in Colorado in 2014 might be the vote that President Hillary Clinton needed to pass universal pre-k in 2017. A seat Republicans lose in Kansas might be the seat President Mike Pence needed to secure a congressional majority and pass Rep. Paul Ryan's budget.
That's what happened during Obama's first two years, certainly. It was the 2006 Democratic wave that got Democrats the temporary 60-vote majority that let them pass Obamacare in 2010. If Democrats had won one less seat in 2006, it's likely that Obamacare never would have passed.
The 2014 election, in other words, may not lead to much action in 2015, but it could prove decisive in 2017. You never know.
9) If you don't vote, you can't fucking complain
Whining about Washington is pretty much a national pastime these days. Only 41 percent of Americans approve of the job President Barack Obama is doing. Only 14 percent approve of the job Congress is doing. Everyone knows Washington is broken.
And it is. So fix it.
"Washington is broken" is passive-voice bullshit. Politicians in Washington do what they think will win them elections. If Washington is broken, then we voters bear some of the blame for breaking it — and everyone who is sitting back and complaining and not voting bears some of the blame for doing nothing to fix it.
There's one really good reason not to vote today: you like how Washington is working. You like how your state government is working. You like how your local government is working. But you also don't much care if it changes.
Which is to say, if you're basically satisfied with how things are going, and also don't think you'll care much if they sharply reverse direction, then by all means, stay home. But if you care enough to be unhappy, then you need to go vote. Otherwise, "Washington" isn't the problem. You are.