What Americans vote on

A guide to some of the positions and ballot initiatives of the 2016 US election

Americans cast votes for much more than the presidency on November 8. Also on the ballot are local and state officials, like sheriffs and judges, as well as the opportunity to vote on issues directly in certain states, like the death penalty and marijuana legalisation. Many of these down-ballot election choices will have more immediate and tangible impact on American voters’ lives than those for federal offices.

Learn what’s at stake with a look at a few of the positions and ballot initiatives Americans vote on.

Elected officials


Sheriffs in the United States are elected county law enforcement officials. Their duties vary depending on the county, but they most often administer county jails, enforce civil law and operate a police force with jurisdiction over the police forces in each town and city in the county. Americans concerned with how police interact with citizens and undocumented immigrants will pay close attention to these races.

Joe Arpaio, Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona

States that share a border with Mexico are the epicenter of the US debate over immigration enforcement. As the sheriff of one of the most populous counties in a border state, Joe Arpaio is a central figure in national debates about immigration reform and the role of police.

Arpaio has been elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona six times. His tactics — such as immigration patrols and making inmates in his prisons live in tents — have made him popular with voters in the county, but controversial figure nationally.

A judge ruled last year that Arpaio’s immigration patrols had engaged in illegal racial profiling and ordered him to cease the practice. Arpaio now faces criminal charges for continuing the patrols in defiance of a court order.

The prospect of jail time and the ballooning cost of racial profiling lawsuits to taxpayers has eroded Arpaio’s longstanding support. Additionally, Latino voters have made a significant effort to organise opposition to his re-election. If Arpaio loses, immigration enforcement in one of the American southwest’s most populous areas could change dramatically.


Americans vote for judges to serve at many different levels of the judicial system — from local judges that decide family law cases to state Supreme Court justices that decide whether laws from the state legislature are constitutional.

Justice Bob Edmunds, North Carolina Supreme Court

Voting rights for African Americans in North Carolina is at the centre of the most contentious judicial elections in 2016. The Supreme Court of North Carolina heard a case in 2014 alleging that Republican state legislators had redrawn voting districts in a way that illegally diminished the power of the African-American vote.

North Carolina’s “Serpentine” 12 congressional district. (WIKIMEDIA)

Justice Bob Edmunds, a Republican, wrote the court’s majority opinion upholding the controversial district lines, a ruling that was overturned by federal courts. He now faces a tough re-election battle against Democrat Judge Michael Morgan, who has criticised the district lines as a race-based attempt to preserve a Republican majority. If Morgan defeats Edmunds, the ideological balance of the court will shift from conservative to liberal.


Prosecutors and state’s attorneys are responsible for representing the government in legal proceedings. For Americans paying attention to issues like mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal system, the race for prosecutor is a battleground in shaping a more just legal system.

Kim Foxx vs Christopher Pfannkuche, Cook County State’s attorney

Voters in Cook County, home to the city of Chicago,will elect a new state’s attorney in this election. But Democratic candidate Kim Foxx has already passed the most difficult stretch in the race — the heated primary against incumbent Anita Alvarez. Alvarez was at the heart of a controversy surrounding the 2014 police killing of Laquan McDonald, an African-American teen. Chicago residents protested against Alvarez for taking over a year to file charges against Jason Van Dyke, the police officer who shot McDonald. When Foxx beat Alvarez to become the Democratic nominee in March, Chicagoans celebrated online with #ByeAnita.

The primary win was widely seen as a success for organising groups pushing for rights from African Americans, like the Black Youth Project and Black Lives Matter. Foxx is now likely to win against her Republican opponent, Christopher Pfannkuche, on Election Day.

School Board

Local school board elections are very important to teachers and parents in a community, as elected board members set policy and spending priorities for many aspects of public education.

Oakland school board election

CBS San Francisco Bay Area

Some school board elections in 2016 have drawn the interest and large campaign donations of charter school advocates many miles away.

Charter schools are educational institutions that receive public funds, but are allowed to operate outside the normal public school system. Whether charter schools are to the benefit or detriment of public education is a hotly contested policy question in many school districts across the US.

In Oakland, California, candidates for school boards have typically spent no more than $20,000 on their campaigns. This election however, three pro-charter school candidates for Oakland’s school board will spend more than $400,000 combined. Most of this campaign cash comes from a handful of pro-charter school billionaires including former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Ballot Initiatives

Minimum wage

Arizona, Colorado, Maine and Washington will vote on whether to increase the minimum wage. If the Washington state measure passes, the minimum wage would increase to $13.50 an hour by 2020. In the other three states, the minimum wage would gradually be raised to $12 an hour. The Washington and Arizona measures would also create a right to paid sick leave for workers in the state.

South Dakota, on the other hand, will vote on a measure proposing a decrease in the minimum wage — from $8.50 an hour to $7.50 — for workers under the age of 18.

Death penalty

The death penalty is one of the most controversial policies in the US. While it is federally legal, states can decide whether or not to use it. Residents of California, Nebraska, and Oklahoma all have death penalty initiatives on their ballots.

In California, where inmates may spend decades on death row before being executed, two opposing ballots are on the table. One would abolish the death penalty, while the other promises to speed up the legal process between conviction and execution by shortening the amount of time available for prisoners to appeal their sentences.


Voters will decide whether or not to change the legal status of marijuana in many states in 2016. Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota will decide whether to expand access to marijuana for medical treatment. California, Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada will decide whether to make the drug legal to possess for recreational use.

Regardless of outcomes of these initiatives, marijuana remains an illegal substance under federal law. The federal government, however, has chosen not to interfere with other states that have expanded access to recreational or medical marijuana.

Solar power in Florida

Part of the struggle in educating US voters is the dense and often confusing language used in ballot initiatives, as is the case with a solar power amendment in Florida. Utility companies have poured money into the amendment, which opponents say intentionally misleads voters who want solar energy expanded. The fight over the amendment’s wording went to Florida’s highest court, which ruled the language could stay on the ballot. But a dissenting judge called the amendment a “wolf in sheep’s clothing”.

Slavery in Colorado

Residents of Colorado will vote on an amendment to remove legalised slavery from their state’s constitution. As it currently stands, the document forbids slavery and involuntary servitude except “as punishment for a crime,” language that mimics the US Constitution’s 13th Amendment. Amendment T asks Coloradans to choose whether or not to strike that exception. While the amendment is popular, some question what effect it could have on prison work programmes in the state.

Safer porn in California

California is home to the pornography industry in the US, but porn actors and producers are up in arms about a ballot initiative aimed at preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Porn actors have been required to wear condoms in California since 1992, but the law is rarely enforced. Proposition 60 would strengthen the state’s condom requirement by allowing viewers to report violations and file lawsuits against anyone with a financial stake in the porn film. If a court finds that a condom wasn’t used, the viewer who reported the violation receives 25 percent of the fines.

Proponents of the measure say it will help prevent the spread of diseases and hold producers accountable for failing to protect the health and safety of performers. Porn actors worry they’ll be the ones held liable for not wearing condoms, as many performers produce their own films.

Voters are also weighing the potential economic consequences of the measure, as several large porn production companies have threatened to leave the state if it passes.