Local Issues Play Out in National Elections

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All eyes may have been turned toward Ohio on election eve in order to discover the outcome of the Presidential contest. However, significant issues impacting the day-to-day lives of Americans were voted on in Michigan, Georgia, Washington, California and other states. Of special note were the events in Tennessee, where the courts had intervened on matters relating to voting procedures. There, the simple local government library card became the tool of many citizens seeking to exercise their right to vote.

The battle over voting rights in Tennessee was perhaps the most significant one in which the practical thinking of city leadership provided a guarantee of civil liberties. The state government in Tennessee had passed a law requiring a government issued photo identification in order to vote. Law suits challenging the constitutionality of the law were filed by several parties all arguing that the limited list of state-sanctioned ID’s would lead to widespread voter disenfranchisement and that; in any case, there was little prior evidence of voter fraud absent a photo ID. A ruling by the State Court of Appeals on October 26th, just days before the election, refused to invalidate the state law but did allow the humble library card being issued by many cities such a Memphis to constitute a valid form of ID. The state Supreme Court will ultimately decide the fate of the voter ID law and the status of local efforts to mitigate the laws antidemocratic edges.

Michigan voters were front and center in campaigns to beat back state efforts to undermine the power of democratically elected municipal governments. At issue was Public Act 4, the law which empowered state-appointed “emergency managers” of municipalities and school districts to wield unchecked authority to pass ordinances, sell property and change labor contracts. Voters repealed this law on Election Day. As in Tennessee, the Michigan state government has a fallback position. This takes the form of Public Act 72, an earlier law allowing for emergency managers but granting them a more narrow scope of power. The fight is expected to continue in the legislature on what some locals have dubbed “the dictator law.”

Advocates of school choice earned some important victories. Voters in Georgia and Washington approved measures allowing establishment (Washington) or reestablishment (Georgia) of charter schools bringing the number of states allowing charters to forty-two. Three times in 20 years the Washington voters had rejected charters only to reverse course in 2012 and allow 40 new charter schools to be created. Georgia had allowed charter schools in prior years but teacher unions had the process blocked after a court challenge in 2011. In the 2012 election, voters approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing the state to authorize charter schools. Some legislators are considering filing suit on the grounds that the amendment language was overly vague and the matter may or may not find its way back to the courts.

In a final case, the fate of a yet-to-be-constructed bridge catapulted an otherwise local matter onto the statewide ballot in Michigan. At issue was the proposed construction of a new international bridge linking Detroit to Windsor, Ontario. In a deal supported by Governor Rick Snyder, the Canadian government was prepared to front the $950 million required for the project. In this most bizarre confrontation, the family that controls the privately-owned Ambassador Bridge between the two cities sought to force a statewide vote on the issue of any new international border crossing. Michigan votes would have none of this, defeating the proposal to amend the state constitution and thereby enshrine monopoly control of the border crossing. The measure failed despite spending of $28 million by those with an interest in the Ambassador Bridge.