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Here are just a few issues — from the cost of education to the minimum wage to corporate regulation — that the next batch of elected leaders will decide on.
1. Should community college be free?
The Obama administration is pushing to make community college tuition-free for all students, and Hillary Clinton is also behind the policy. The idea isn't just to make community college more affordable; its advocates say making it free will change the perception of college itself, making it the norm in the future for students to go to college for two years, just like it's now considered necessary to graduate from high school.
This proposal has its weaknesses. For one, most low-income students can already go to community college for free thanks to Pell Grant programs; abolishing tuition entirely would benefit mostly middle-class and upper-middle-class students. Plus, plenty of community colleges have quality issues — many have lower graduation rates than for-profit colleges like the University of Phoenix. And the plan would increase the federal budget deficit by an estimated $60 billion over 10 years.
The decision regarding free community college will be made by the next administration, and there's a pretty clear disagreement between the candidates on whether it's a good idea. "It's absurd on its surface," a Trump campaign co-chair told Inside Higher Ed, adding that community college is "damn near free now."
2. Should Airbnb be treated more like a public company?
More than 2,000 miles from Wall Street, a kind of shadow stock market has emerged in Silicon Valley. Investors buy and sell shares in privately held startups, in deals arranged by brokers and other middlemen. These startups, including Uber, Airbnb, and Palantir, are some of the hottest companies around, and yet they're not required to release regular financial reports to all their shareholders. People who buy shares on the so-called secondary market — meaning from other shareholders, rather than from the startup — are in many cases buying blind.
Regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission say they want to police this market, though they can only do so much if the companies are not publicly traded. In a speech this year, SEC chief Mary Jo White said that "some of the same principles that characterize public companies — transparency with investors, controls on financial reporting, strong corporate governance — have applicability and relevance to private companies" and "should not be overlooked or avoided."
Uber and Airbnb will most likely head to Wall Street one day, but those companies and others have set a precedent — enabled by a 2012 law called the Jobs Act — for staying private well into maturity. Regulators and the politicians who appoint them will, in the coming years, have to reckon with a new financial reality in which the most desirable companies trade in an opaque and fragmented market. Even if the laws don't change, regulators have an important tool in federal anti-fraud rules, which apply to stock transactions of any kind. White suggested that she would keep an eye on whether startups, in their race to achieve a high valuation, "try to appear more valuable than they actually are." For future regulators, the question will be just how closely they're willing to look.
3. Should the government limit the availability of payday loans?
Payday loans are small, short-term loans, made at interest rates that can climb to well over 100% annually. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has proposed rules that would likely shut down many of the small, storefront payday lenders that have sprung up across the country.
The rules haven’t gone into effect yet, and will likely face legal challenge from lenders after they’re implemented. They would require payday lenders to check if a borrower can afford to repay their loan before approving it — currently, the industry thrives on borrowers who take out new loans to pay off old ones.
Payday lenders say rules like this would virtually destroy the industry, which they say is used by many low-income Americans who cannot access credit or loans from traditional banks. Leading Republicans, including Trump, have called for so-called Dodd-Frank financial laws that established the CFPB to be overhauled, or scrapped entirely.
4. Should advertising on social media get closer attention from regulators?
Advertising is changing fast and moving into new forms, from a product placement in someone's Instagram feed to a filter on an ephemeral medium like Snapchat. It's harder than ever for the Federal Trade Commission, which looks out for deceptive or fraudulent advertising, to keep up.
In recent years, brands like Cole Haan and Lord & Taylor have gotten in trouble for failing make clear that they are paying for endorsements from users on platforms like Pinterest and Instagram. But enforcement of the rules has been sporadic at best, and newer forms of social advertising are even harder to track than traditional print and broadcast ads.
The FTC is an independent agency, its commissioners are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, and its approach to regulation expands and shrinks based on whether Democrats or Republicans are in charge. In general, Republican have tended to oppose limitations on "commercial speech" and focused on the rights of businesses, while Democrats have favored broader authority out of the FTC in protecting consumers.
5. Should we raise the federal minimum wage?
Since 2009 the federal minimum wage for has been $7.25, or $15,080 a year for a person who works full-time. The Obama administration has long supported a raise in the federal minimum wage (initially to $10.10, then $12 an hour), while the national Fight for 15 movement has built support in many big cities to raise the minimum to $15 an hour.
While many states have set higher minimums, 16 U.S. states still use the federal minimum, including Alabama and Mississippi. From the president down to state houses, the people who win the 2016 elections will decide whether minimum wages need to rise, and by how much.
While the perception of minimum-wage work often revolves around teenagers flipping burgers for pocket money, it is now also a mainstay of adult life. If the federal minimum rose to $12 an hour, 89% of the people getting a raise would be 20 or older.
6. Should we sign on to the Trans Pacific Partnership?
The Trans Pacific Partnership is a massive international trade deal, reached after years of negotiations among countries in the Asia-Pacific and the Americas, including the United States, New Zealand, Australia, Vietnam, Mexico, Canada, and Chile. It has been aggressively criticized by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — and even Hillary has said she opposed it, although she worked on the deal and supported earlier versions of it while serving as secretary of state.
The TPP's provisions are insanely detailed and cover thousands of individual trade issues, from labor standards in developing countries like Vietnam, to the lowering of taxes on imported of agricultural goods and opening Asian countries to American banks and financial companies.
One of the most controversial parts of the deal is the “investor-state dispute settlement” system, which lets foreign companies dispute local laws by claiming they violate international trade deals.
Donald Trump has been a vehement opponent of the deal, saying it will lead to Japan stealing market share from the U.S. auto industry, flooding the U.S. with Vietnamese imports. Many Democrats in Congress also oppose the deal.
7. Should sugar be taxed like the new tobacco?
One way elected officials shape consumer behavior is through taxes. A 2009 federal tax increase on tobacco is credited for reducing cigarette sales, and some lawmakers are now considering a tax on soda, a high-profile target in the fight against obesity. Sugar-sweetened beverages now account for 39% of all added sugars consumed by the U.S. population, according to the government's 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines.
In June, Philadelphia joined Berkeley, California, in passing a tax on soda and other sugary beverages like teas, sports drinks, and energy drinks. The tax is 1.5 cents per ounce (adding 18 cents to a 12-ounce can of soda) and will fund programs including preschool. It's still less than the 3 cents per ounce the city's mayor had proposed. In 2009, President Obama said a federal tax was "an idea that we should be exploring,” but his administration did not pursue it.
Presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton voiced support for Philadelphia's proposed tax in April. "We need universal preschool. And if that's a way to do it, that's how we should do it," she said. Republican candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, criticized the move on Facebook as a tax that would burden the poor and middle class — a view shared, in fact, by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Yet early research in Mexico, which enacted a soda tax in 2014, shows soda consumption has declined the most among the poor.
8. Should Uber drivers be classed as Uber employees?
For TaskRabbit errand-runners, Instacart grocery deliverers, and Uber and Lyft drivers, decisions made by the next class of elected leaders will hit their paychecks, their taxes, and their workplace safety standards.
Under the Obama administration, the Department of Labor has long pushed to classify these workers as employees of the tech companies that run the platforms, rather than independent contractors. This would have implications for things like overtime, paid leave, and workers’ compensation if they get hurt on the job. The next president and their secretary of labor will decide whether to continue this push or to step back, leaving the issue to the courts to decide.
Gig-economy employers, for their part, have argued that declaring the workers their employees would limit the flexibility and autonomy that makes these "gig" jobs appealing in the first place.
Venessa Wong is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Wong covers the food industry.
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Sapna Maheshwari is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Maheshwari reports on retail and e-commerce.
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Molly Hensley-Clancy is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC. She covers the intersection of business and education.
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Matthew Zeitlin is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Zeitlin reports on Wall Street and big banks.
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William Alden is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco. Alden covers the technology industry.
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Cora Lewis is a business reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Lewis reports on labor.
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