In less than four weeks, North Carolinians will vote.  And in many counties and municipalities, it won’t just be the elections for president and governor, but a variety of referenda on local issues.  These questions are generally the very last things on the ballot.  They may be on the back.  So, they’re easily missed or ignored.  Or, by the time voters get to them, they’re just so “voted out” that the last thing they have any interest in doing is reading through referendum language.

But referenda are really important for at least two reasons. 

First, particularly with the sorts of referenda on ballots this year, they very directly affect residents in the counties where they’re decided.  There are a few exceptions, but for the most part, referenda this year fall into three categories.

  • Local tax increases – 14 counties are considering increases in the sales tax rate, and two more are voting on local school supplement taxes.
  • Bonds – 11 local governments will vote on bonds to fund various government projects.
  • Alcohol – 15 counties or municipalities will vote on changes to restrictions on wine and beer sales or ABC stores.

Those are all things that very directly affect lots of people.  Sales tax rates affect every purchase of school supplies or household good, Christmas presents or movie tickets.  We all pay some sort of sales tax almost every day, so a change in that rate very directly affects all of us.

Bonds are essentially debt, and repayment falls on taxpayers.  Sometimes there are specific tax increases to pay back the debt.  Other times money is diverted from alternative uses or tax rates remain higher than they could have been in order to make loan payments.  Either way, taxpayers are on the hook for bonds long after the vote is settled.

And alcohol is something that most adults purchase at least on occasion, so changes to when and where it can be purchased and consumed have broad impact on both consumers and the businesses that sell it.

There’s another reason that referenda are important, and that’s the size of the electorate.  For a big national or statewide race, there are millions of voters. But for these local referenda, there are far fewer, so the result can often come down to just a small number of votes.  There’s just no chance that your one vote is going to make any difference to the outcome of the presidential race, but a local bond issue or sales tax increase or change to alcohol laws could be a different matter.  Voting on these measures is actually really important.

These measures are all unique, and individual voters will have to make up their minds on the particulars, but there are some principles that are worth bearing in mind.

  1. Sales taxes are just that, taxes. Any increases in the sales tax make everything we buy that bit more expensive.  And it doesn’t seem like a big deal, because it’s only a fraction of a penny.  But it’s a fraction of a penny on every dollar you spend.  That adds up to millions of dollars that are taken from taxpayers and given to the government, dollars that can’t be used to provide for families or invest in small businesses or save for a rainy day.  Tax rates are high enough already.
  1. Bonds are debt. Governments like to pretend that bonds won’t affect taxes, but they must.  Those debts have to be repaid, and the source of that repayment is tax revenues.  In order to pay for bonds, governments either have to raise taxes or are unable to cut them.  So would you rather have the bond issue, or a tax cut?
  1. Alcohol is a sensitive subject, and people have widely varying ideas. But these referenda are really about people’s ability to make free choices about what they buy and where.  The details are different in different counties and municipalities, but most of them are about allowing someone to open a craft beer or wine bar or about permitting an ABC store to open.  None of them are about putting a bar next to an elementary school or allowing drunken disorderly conduct.

So vote wisely on November 8, and don’t forget those local referenda at the end of the ballot.