State and local elections often get overshadowed by the debates, buzz, and campaign promises at the national level. But our quality of life and health of our communities are not in the hands of the president alone. Our local and state officials ultimately answer to us, and this is our chance to vote for the people and issues that will directly impact our everyday lives.

We need to educate ourselves about candidates for city council, circuit judges, sheriff, state representative, and others and support the candidates whose policy recommendations and values align with ours. After all, our local and state officials are ultimately responsible for our property tax rates, development projects, our schools, small business support, road conditions, access to safe and affordable housing, and hundreds of other issues that we may encounter on a daily basis.

Are we content with Arkansas’ standing as one of the worst states for health, education, affordable housing, and economic opportunity? Our ultimate power lies in voting to unseat lawmakers who put special interests ahead of what’s best for the communities they serve.

Let’s look at some examples of how our elected officials are shaping the future of our state:

Taxes

This past November, Governor Asa Hutchinson proposed a personal income tax cut that would overwhelmingly benefit the top 5% of taxpayers.

According to Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, “Arkansas’s poorest taxpayers would see few of the benefits. The lowest 20 percent of taxpayers would receive just 1 percent of the total tax-cut pie, and middle-income taxpayers would see 7 percent of the benefits. Most of the benefits under the Governor’s proposal would go to those at the top. The top 5 percent of Arkansas taxpayers (those with incomes over $199,000) would receive 65 percent of the benefits from the total tax cut. The top 1 percent alone would receive nearly half (46 percent) of the total tax cut pie.”

In a state where nearly 20 percent of residents, and 26 percent of children, live below the poverty line, tax cuts for the wealthiest Arkansans are outrageous. We must support and elect candidates who will stand up for low- and middle-class workers and ensure that the state budget is allocated to ensure that programs are available to assist our most vulnerable citizens.

Renters’ Rights

Arkansas is the only state in the country that does not require landlords to provide tenants with a safe dwelling. This means that landlords can rent properties with leaky roofs and faulty plumbing and electrical. Landlords do not have to make repairs to the property unless it’s stated in the lease, and, to make matters worse for renters if the landlord promises to make a repair but doesn’t, the tenant is still on the hook for rent.

According to the AR Attorney General’s website: “Tenants have some recourse, such as going to small claims court, renegotiating lease agreement terms, moving, or seeking the advice of a private attorney.” All of these options come at a great cost—in terms of time and money—for renters.

House bill 1410 that aimed to put more rights into renters’ hands died in the 2019 legislative session.

The Justice System

Electing good judges to the bench is of crucial importance. The Framers of the Constitution created the United States as a country that puts the rule of law first and foremost. This means that U.S. residents, no matter how powerful or powerless, must obey the laws of the land and that no one is above the law. The most crucial cog in ensuring that we are a nation of the rule of law is the judicial system—in a word—judges.

There can be no rule of law without fair, impartial, independent, and uncorrupt judges. Whether judges are elected or appointed, they must adhere to these principles. If judges succumb to political, social, or monetary influence, people will lose faith in their ability to get justice from the courts or to have their cases fairly heard. Once confidence in the judiciary is lost, confidence in the other institutions of government will ultimately decline.

Take the example of Mike Maggio, formerly Faulkner County Circuit Judge: Maggio was convicted for taking bribes from a nursing home owner to reduce a jury verdict in a nursing home case in return for campaign contributions. Luckily, Maggio was found out and is currently serving 10 years in the federal penitentiary.

Individuals need to feel confident that their case against a corporation will be heard by a fair and impartial judge. Corporations need to feel this also, as do people accused of crimes. So it is critical that we elect judges who are not beholden to anyone—not politicians, nor corporations or any special interest group.

Good judges stick up for individual rights against majority rule when warranted. Good judges are a check on legislators who pass unconstitutional laws. Good judges have stood up for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of people of color.

That is why it is so important to do your research to know about the person running for judge and, if the judge is elected, to understand his or her motivations. Having the title of “judge” in front of a candidate’s name is not sufficient reason to vote for that person, because not all judges are good, fair judges.

Learn about the candidates

During this election year, make sure you know as much about local and state candidates as you do the presidential candidates. Most candidates have websites and/or social media pages where you can learn more about them and their issues of focus. You can also view their financial disclosure statements through the AR Secretary of State’s website. This will give you insights into who or what may sway a candidate’s decisions once he or she is elected.

Study your ballot before voting

You can view a sample ballot here so that you are informed and prepared as you get ready to cast your vote. Look up your registration information by name and date of birth and scroll all the way to the bottom of the screen for sample ballots.

Stephanie Matthews is an operations and strategic communications consultant based in Little Rock. She works and volunteers with PAWPAC.

Bettina Brownstein is a long-time Arkansas civil rights attorney and political activist. She is the leader of Progressive Arkansas Women PAC.