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Five Reasons to Vote

Midterm elections can be a bore but not this year — too much is at stake

The Nov. 2 election is shaping up as one for the record books. Voters will choose more governors than ever before, 37, and the most U.S. senators in any election since 1962, also 37. They'll determine which party controls Congress. They'll decide issues that can profoundly affect their lives with about 150 measures on ballots in 35 states. Elections in 88 of the 99 state legislative chambers will set the stage for reapportionment wrangling that will shape state and federal politics for a decade. Here are five reasons your vote this year is especially important.

1. Your vote makes a difference

Guess what — your vote really does matter.

Voter turnout is notoriously low in midterm elections. Since 1974, less than half the electorate has bothered going to the polls when the presidency is not at stake.

Older Americans are the exception. They are much more likely to vote than any other age group, and that adds up to increased clout with politicians before the election and — more important — afterward. In the 2006 midterm election, voters age 45 and older represented 65 percent of those voting, and their share of the voting public has steadily grown. According to separate surveys by the AARP Bulletin and the Pew Research Center, eight out of 10 voters over age 50 said they intend to vote in November, compared with 54 percent of those under 50.

"Elections always matter. They have resounding consequences for the next two years of governing," says Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. "This is why people should always vote."

2. Control of Congress is at stake

Older Americans are angry with Congress. They're unhappy with congressional incumbents and may be more willing to bring in new blood, according to the Pew survey. In the Bulletin poll, 44 percent of those over age 50 said they were disgusted with politics, compared with 36 percent of those under 50. Anger at incumbents could spell trouble for Democrats, who control the White House and both chambers of Congress, especially with Medicare, taxes, health care and Social Security on the agenda. Historically, the party in control of the White House loses congressional seats in midterm elections. Since World War II, only Presidents Bill Clinton in 1998 and George W. Bush in 2002 saw their parties gain seats in a midterm election, and both of them had approval ratings above 60 percent in the Gallup Poll at the time. President Obama's approval rating has dropped below 50 percent, a point at which the president's party has in the past lost an average of 36 seats, according to Gallup.

Congressional analysts project the GOP will pick up 40 or more seats in the House, enough to claim control, and seven to eight Senate seats, just shy of a majority. "Sure, Obama would prefer to keep both houses of Congress," says Sabato. "But if he doesn't? Then he has someone to blame come reelection time in 2012."

3. Governors are critical players

In the 37 states where the governor's office is up for grabs, this election could affect your state's economic and political future.

Nearly every state struggled to close a budget shortfall this year, and 39 have already projected budget gaps next year totaling more than $100 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

"Every governor will be forced to decide between cutting programs and raising taxes and fees — or a combination of both — at a time when there is more demand for programs," says Jennifer E. Duffy, Cook Political Report senior editor. "What happens in the states over the next two years is critical. It will determine how quickly the states recover."

The incoming governors will also have a hand in determining the political future of their states — 46 of the nation's 50 governors play some role in the once-a-decade process of drawing new legislative and congressional boundaries, which in turn can determine whether Democrats or Republicans will hold power in the state legislatures and the U.S. House.

"Redistricting matters a lot to both political parties," Duffy says. "Even if a state doesn't gain or lose a congressional district, they will redraw lines."

Currently, the Democrats have a slight edge among governors, holding 26 to the GOP's 24. Duffy says the party in power in the White House generally loses five or more gubernatorial seats in a midterm election.

4. Ballot measures affect your pocketbook and life

There is more on the ballot than politicians. In 35 states, there are 150 ballot measures, many with the potential to have a direct impact on your finances.

Leslie Graves, Ballotpedia editor, says voters will decide 34 tax-related ballot measures, ranging from hiking high-wage earners' income taxes in Washington state to slashing property taxes in Florida. They'll also determine the fate of 15 measures seeking to change budgeting rules for government.

"Tax, fiscal and budget-related initiatives affect everyone in a state," says Graves. "It may be a small impact on particular individuals but, overall, can have a large impact on the economic health and well-being of a state."

Favorite pastimes, hot-button social issues and health care will also be on the ballot, with voters in Arizona, Arkansas, South Carolina and Tennessee deciding whether hunting and fishing should be a constitutional right. Californians will vote on legalizing marijuana, while Arizona, South Dakota and Oregon consider medical marijuana measures. Abortion is on the ballot in Colorado, and Maine and Oregon will vote on casino gaming.

Arizona, Colorado and Oklahoma will consider ballot measures challenging the requirement in the new federal health care law that everyone have health insurance or pay a penalty.

5. Voting is easier than ever before

No more excuses! All 50 states and the District of Columbia offer voters options such as voting before Nov. 2 through absentee ballot, early voting or same-day registration. There is "no excuse" absentee voting in 29 states, which is just like it sounds: You don't need to cite a reason for voting by mail.

California, Colorado, Hawaii, Montana and Washington make it even easier by offering "permanent absentee voting." Sign up once and you're automatically mailed an absentee ballot before every election.

Two-thirds of the states offer some sort of early voting, so you can cast your ballot in person at designated locations, ranging from the county clerk's office to curbside polling places in Texas. Eight states and D.C. offer "same day" or Election Day registration, with voting on the same day, says Paul Gronke, director of Reed College's Early Voting Information Center (EVIC) in Portland, Ore.

"Whether done only on Election Day or during early voting, this is one of the most effective ways to increase turnout," he says.

But, Gronke adds, expanding voting opportunities can also increase errors. He says an EVIC survey of 2008 Florida ballots found the two precincts with the highest level of voter errors were wholly contained in senior living facilities.

"These voters were also much more likely to vote by mail — absentee — than vote early, and we know that voters make more errors with absentee ballots because the ballots are not checked immediately by an optical character reader," he says. But the trend is clear: In the 2008 presidential election, about one-third of all ballots — more than 40 million — were cast before Election Day or at locations other than the voter's traditional polling place.

Laura Mecoy is a freelance writer based in California.

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