Care about Working Families? Don't Forget Down Ballot Races!

In an election year like 2016, it's easy to get distracted by the balloon drops, blustery language, and bravado of the top-of-the-ticket presidential candidates. But we can't forget that TRUMP and CLINTON are not the only names on the ballot on November 8. Thousands of state and local candidates are making their cases to voters, and the results will have a huge impact on the policy priorities in executive offices, statehouses, and council chambers across the country.

It can be difficult to remember, after suffering through one of history's most unproductive sessions of Congress, that good stuff actually gets done in government. I'm here to tell you, as important as presidential and congressional races are to a working families' agenda, it is often the statehouses and the mayor's offices that can make the quickest change. State legislatures were hard at work in 2016 passing good laws, bad laws, mediocre laws, and WTF laws, all while laying the groundwork for 2017. AAUW members were there every step of the way, holding elected officials accountable as they took up issues that impact women and families. To show you just the kind of impact the results of these "down ballot" races can have on your life, let's take a look back at the year in statehouses across the country. From equal pay to voting rights, to paid sick days and campus sexual assault, legislatures have been busy. And keep in mind, your vote in these races can set the statewide policy agenda for 2017 and beyond.

We know that economic security is a top issue in all races, and that equal pay is especially critical to women voters. This year, states saw a tidal wave of equal pay bills. In 2015, approximately 29 states introduced equal pay bills, but that number jumped to 36 this year. Of those 36, six states -- California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Utah -- succeeded in passing bills. Notably, these are blue, red, and purple states, showing that equal pay is an issue whose time has come. The increasingly urgent conversation about state equal pay policies has also prompted action at the local level, spurring cities to act and prompting employers to begin voluntarily examining their own practices.

Similarly, we're seeing a lot of action at the local level when it comes to earned sick and paid family leave legislation. Vermont was the only state that passed a new earned paid sick days law in 2016, but seven municipalities also passed ordinances. New York was the only state to add a paid family leave law to the books this year, but many other states are clearly considering the issue, as 22 states introduced bills on the subject.

While Congress passed a comprehensive education law that gave a lot more power to the states, most statehouses also weighed in on education during the 2016 session in some form. On the K-12 side, legislators paid particular attention to accountability, assessments, bullying and harassment, funding, charter schools and voucher systems, and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Voucher school systems which funnel taxpayer dollars to private schools instead of public, were expanded in five states, but a similar bill was also vetoed in Virginia. To promote STEM education, an area where women are vastly underrepresented, 12 states instituted new policies. While all of these new laws are important, there is still more state legislatures (and Congress!) can do to target resources for girls and other underrepresented groups in STEM.

We've finally started to see a national conversation on major issues impacting college students. During the 2016 legislative session, 22 states introduced bills addressing campus sexual assault, and six states passed their bills. While these bills took aim at a range of issues, most touched on the definition of affirmative consent or the role of local law enforcement. On the financial side, students experienced a rollercoaster year of funding decreases and tuition increases. The silver lining is those constraints fueled a much-needed discussion about our student debt burden. New bills in 18 states addressed student borrowers' bills of rights, residency requirements, and loan forgiveness programs.

As the country endures squawking about rigged elections and voter fraud, we would be smart to remember that this is not the first we've heard such baseless claims. This year will mark the first presidential election since the decision in Shelby County v. Holder, in which the U.S. Supreme Court severely undercut the Voting Rights Act. Following the decision, 14 states put greater restrictions on voting. Claiming concern over potential voter fraud, these states passed laws which undoubtedly will result in fewer eligible voters casting ballots in critical elections. Quite frankly, many of them are nothing more than poll taxes designed to keep certain voters from the polls. Several of these laws, and others passed in the last few years, are undergoing legal challenges. That's good news, but many voters are still left in legal limbo and that may cause confusion on Election Day.

In the last few years, a majority of states have enacted an unprecedented number of restrictions on women's health and reproductive rights. Other attacks included attempts to restrict access to family planning services, the enactment of targeted regulation of abortion providers (TRAP) laws, bans on fetal tissue donation or research, funding for crisis pregnancy centers, and requiring doctors to provide medically inaccurate counseling. Many of these bills were defeated, but at least 17 states managed to enact restrictions on women's health. On the flip side, Maryland and Vermont sought to expand contraceptive coverage.

Your vote not only determines what issues your statehouse addresses but its overall makeup! I know this seems like a "well, duh" moment but remember: women account for only 25 percent of ALL state legislators nationwide and only SIX women serve as governors! Women of color only make up just 5 percent of state legislators and three percent of statewide elected executives. We know that having a diverse set of voices in the room makes for better, more inclusive policy. It's up to you to make sure candidates up and down the ballot know which issues matter to you and that you'll be watching on Election Day and beyond. Your vote is your voice; make it heard at the ballot box! Elections are always decided by the people who bother to show up.