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Voters weigh issues, face challenges at midterm polls

Consequences of Tuesday’s election in question with many key races still too close to call

“Elections have consequences,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., famously said in the spring of 2007. “So I make the rules.” She was rebuking Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., for constantly interrupting former Vice President Al Gore during testimony before the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee, drawing Inhofe’s attention to the fact that the previous November’s midterm elections had put Democrats in charge of the House and Senate — and the fact that she had replaced Inhofe as committee chair.

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While the extent of the consequences of U.S. elections remains a subject for debate, Tuesday’s 2014 midterms could certainly affect the day-to-day operations of government on Capitol Hill and in statehouses and town councils across the country. When the horse race is over and the attack ads forgotten, the winners will make (or not make) laws, set agendas and craft policy. When the votes have all been counted, the repercussions parsed by the punditocracy and the professional operatives begin their plans to do it all over again in 2016, the issues at stake in these elections will continue to affect the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans.

It is those issues — the ones considered electoral touchstones, the ones that persist whether or not the country is in an election year — that have been the focus of Al Jazeera’s coverage.

Voting rights

With both parties mindful of the extent to which turnout can shape an election’s outcome, the question of who gets to vote in the U.S. has become an important political battleground. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County decision, which struck down a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, dozens of states have imposed stricter registration requirements, eliminated same-day registration, cut back on early voting opportunities and required state-approved identification, in some cases, photo ID. Republicans have argued that these measures were essential to prevent ballot fraud; Democrats complain that these measures disproportionately disqualify impoverished black and Latino voters more likely to vote for President Barack Obama’s party.

Court battles over changes to voting regulations have had mixed results. The Supreme Court allowed Ohio’s and North Carolina’s cutbacks on early voting and the latter’s elimination of Election Day registration with valid proof of residence. Wisconsin’s tough new voter ID law, which could disenfranchise 300,000 voters, was put on hold by the courts, and the Supreme Court overturned a Texas court decision striking down that state’s very restrictive ID requirements.

More than 600,000 Texans who were previously allowed to vote could be turned away from the ballot box on Tuesday.

In Georgia, where civic groups attempted to register 100,000 voters, most of them minorities, some 40,000 of the applications have gone missing or at least have not yet been processed by the Republican secretary of state.

And in 27 states, most of them controlled by Republicans, election officials have undertaken a massive purge of the voter rolls, putting at risk the voting rights of millions of mostly black, Hispanic and Asian Americans.

Mail-in-only voting will be in place in three states this year — the latest being Colorado — in an attempt to increase turnout. But New Jersey’s experiment with Internet-based e-voting in the wake of Superstorm Sandy was a disaster all its own.

Money in politics

Voting rights are not the only aspect of the elections that could be strongly influenced by Supreme Court decisions. The momentous Citizens United ruling has opened the way for a tidal surge of outside money into the political process, often allowing the donors to remain anonymous to the electorate. Campaign coffers brim with personal and corporate donations that would have been illegal under previous interpretations of campaign finance laws. Even more influential, perhaps, is the unrestricted spending done by ostensibly unaffiliated political action committees and nonprofit “social welfare” organizations on “information” ads and mailers that contain some of the most vituperative attacks on candidates. Citizens United has made it harder for an informed electorate to ascertain the scale of donations or the identities and agendas of donors.

Reproductive rights

The Supreme Court is never far from the minds of those fighting to preserve or restrict abortion rights and — since the court’s Hobby Lobby rulingother reproductive services, such as access to health insurance that covers birth control.

The last three years have seen over 100 new laws limiting abortion access in over half the states. The support of Republicans in most races for restricting access to abortion and birth control, along with some who also oppose laws requiring equal pay, has prompted Democrats to seek to mobilize their base by making the 2014 elections a referendum on what they call the GOP’s “war on women.”

Republicans have countered by fielding some high-profile female candidates — most notably for open Senate seats in Iowa and Michigan — and insisting that their economic philosophy better serves women.

Both parties seem aware that many women will head to the polls with issues of health care, childbirth and paychecks on their minds, and their choices could shape the elections’ outcome.

Jobs and labor

The stock market might be up and unemployment figures down, but the U.S. economy does not feel as if it has recovered for millions of Americans who saw their savings depleted by the 2008 financial crisis or who were forced to accept lower-paying jobs after being laid off. Ninety-five percent of economic gains in the current upturn have gone to the richest 1 percent of Americans, and median wages are at their lowest level since 1998.

The 2011 Occupy Wall Street demonstrations taught some politicians, most of them Democrats, that discussing inequality could resonate with voters. Outgoing Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., introduced legislation to raise the federal minimum wage, but Republicans blocked the measure, insisting that cutting taxes and the deficit are the keys to turning around the economy.

With the federal government gridlocked, 23 states and Washington, D.C., have set minimum wage levels higher than the federal floor of $7.25 an hour. Minimum wage hikes are on Tuesday’s ballot in four ostensibly red states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — while voters decide on other wage measures in Illinois and parts of Wisconsin.

Raising the minimum wage was a campaign theme for Democratic candidates, from Maine and Pennsylvania to South Carolina and Kansas, but resisting wage laws and fighting organized labor have been key planks for Republicans in Kentucky, Michigan, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

So-called right-to-work laws, which limit the power of unions, and pension protections for public workers will also be before voters. While policies on wages, labor rights and retirement benefits will all have lasting effects on the lives of working Americans, it remains to be seen whether the threats and the promises will have immediate effects at the polls.


Although the current Congress failed to pass any sort of immigration reform, the issue remains very much alive for voters. Just ask former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., whose qualified support of an incremental change in immigration law helped cost the powerful seven-term incumbent his job in a primary challenge from the right. Cantor’s upset defeat sent a chill through the GOP establishment. The party that had insisted it learned a lesson in 2012 — when Obama captured three-quarters of the Hispanic vote — is again staking out anti-immigration positions to rally its base.

Democrats are not exactly unified on the issue, but the party has recognized that victory in states such as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico and even North Carolina requires the support of large numbers of Latino voters.

But with a president known by some as the “deporter in chief” and a government that failed to deliver even the most moderate of immigration reforms, being a Democrat does not guarantee candidates support from immigrant American communities. And the 11 million undocumented immigrants are unlikely to see meaningful changes in the law as a result of Tuesday’s vote.

The horse race

Going into Tuesday’s vote, all kinds of ink and airtime have been wasted on predicting what will be known only on Wednesday and maybe not even then. Will this be another wave election? Will Democrats hold on to the Senate? Will more states wind up under single-party rule? And will anyone care?

A Tuesday wave is unlikely. A wave election would see a sizable change in leadership, with the new leaders winning by sizable margins. While history and some of the national opinion polling will tell you that the president’s party will lose seats in the Senate and maybe in the House, there are still numerous races that are considered complete toss-ups. National generic ballot polls, which have shown a remarkable consistency in previous wave years, are remarkably inconsistent this year, with just about as many surveys saying voters favor Democrats as ones saying the electorate prefers the GOP.

Predicting that the many coin-flip races are settled in a manner that allows the GOP to hold the Senate seats they need to hold, take most of the open seats and beat a handful of incumbent Democrats to claim a Senate majority requires more than a seasoned political gut or a series of statistical models. Those races could be affected by factors such as early voting, voting by mail and a host of voter restrictions that can change the composition of the electorate. Add to these the widespread expectation of a very low voter turnout, and many races become very hard to prophesy.

Many races may not be settled once Tuesday’s votes are counted. Two states in particular could keep America in suspense. In Louisiana a “jungle primary” allows a large number of candidates to challenge the Democratic incumbent, Sen. Mary Landrieu, and if no one garners a simple majority, the top two finishers — likely Landrieu and a Republican — will face off in December.

Georgia, which also requires the winner to top 50 percent, threatens to be the other cliffhanger. If Libertarian candidate Amanda Swafford captures enough votes, she could force Democrat Michelle Nunn and Republican David Perdue into a runoff. That would be held on Jan. 6, 2015, three days after the next session of Congress is set to begin.

Early signposts

Election watchers should get a picture of the national tide a little earlier than January, however. In Kentucky — where incumbent Republican Mitch McConnell, slated to be the Senate’s majority leader should his party gain six seats, is facing a strong challenge from Democrat Alison Lundergan Grimes — polls close at 6 p.m. Eastern time for the eastern part of the state and 6 p.m. Central time for the western half. Most expect McConnell to survive, if narrowly, but if his seat flips, Tuesday night could be full of surprises.

Next up are poll closings in New Hampshire (7 p.m. ET) and North Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET), where incumbent Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Kay Hagan, respectively, must hold off GOP challengers. If both fall, expect to start hearing a lot about that previously mentioned wave.

Other key races to watch as the night wears on include Iowa, Colorado and Alaska. Then there is the wild West wild card in Kansas, where three-term incumbent Republican Sen. Pat Roberts is facing independent Greg Orman. Orman is thought to favor caucusing with the Democrats, but if the Senate is split, expect both parties to bid for his allegiance.

Besides the high-profile races for the U.S. Senate, there are hotly contested races and ballot measures across the country, and for all the national attention focused on control of the Senate, if recent past is prologue, the real news — the kind that has the power to change people’s lives — will be made at the state and local levels.

For those governors, mayors, state legislators and city officials — and for all the people they want to represent, whether they wind up voting or not — the elections will have consequences, for Tuesday and for years to come.

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