Yesterday, voters chose new leaders. They entrusted them with the responsibility to draft legislation; and soon, those officials will guide cites, counties, states, and the nation. But, in 155 ballot measures in 37 states—and more on local polls—voters were also given the opportunity to shape policy themselves.
A “blue wave” may not have overwhelmingly swept Congress, but there was undoubtedly a progressive wave across ballot initiatives, even in conservative states and cities: Minimum wages will rise in Arkansas and Missouri. Louisiana reformed its criminal justice system. Portland will fund environmental equity. California will rebalance its budget with housing assistance in mind. Some Seattle public school students might soon secure free education. And, while reports of rampant voter disenfranchisement soured election results in states like Georgia, voters also approved new re-enfranchisement and gerrymanding reform measures. There have, of course, been some exceptions: Among other things, two more cities voted to ban fluoridated water, and Washington state didn’t pass its carbon fee.
We’ll be updating results throughout the day. Below, some of the most noteworthy wins and losses.
Florida will restore voting rights to felons
A full 9.2 percent of residents who would be eligible to vote in Florida are convicted felons—together, they make up 17.9 percent of the black vote, according to 2016 estimates from The Sentencing Project. That’s approximately 1.5 million people who, until today, couldn’t vote, even though they’re out of jail.
After Florida voters passed Amendment 4 last night, that will change. Voting rights will be returned to all previously convicted felons in the state (except for those who committed murder or sex offenses), a cohort of more than 1 million—none of whom could weigh in on the initiative that enfranchised them.
Now, Kentucky and Iowa are the only two states that still ban even felons who have completed their sentences from voting. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Maine and Vermont are the only two states to let people vote regardless of their criminal history or current status. (In another big win for criminal justice reform in Florida, voters also passed Amendment 11, which, among other things, allows the legislature to reduce criminal sentences retroactively.)
Gerrymandering lost big
Voters in Michigan, Colorado, and Missouri all approved ballot initiatives to end political redistricting, with approval rates of almost 60 percent to more than 70 percent. One notable thing about these gerrymandering bills was that there was no single model. Missouri passed redistricting reform as part of a greater reform package. Michigan opted to include very detailed language in its ballot measure; Colorado divided the gerrymandering measure into two separate questions. All of them passed. And Utah’s may too.
In Utah, the fourth state that weighed a gerrymandering bill, the question was still too close to call. Proposition 4 would create an independent seven-member board to draw state and congressional districts, which would boost representation of Democrats in Salt Lake City and other urban areas. At press time, the ballot was winning by a fraction of a percent, with fewer than 5,000 votes separating for and against.
The 2018 midterms provide a roadmap for voters in even heavily gerrymandered states to do the structural reforms that politicians won’t. If an anti-gerrymandering bill can pass in a state like Utah, which is dominated by a single party, then there may not be many states where gerrymandering is safe.
A failed bid to repeal a gas tax
Backed by leading congressional Republicans, a ballot measure to roll back California’s gas tax and vehicle fee increase was designed to drive right-leaning voters to the polls. But opponents, which included the state’s construction industry, major labor groups, and Democrats, out-fundraised the effort by more than $40 million.
On Tuesday, 55 percent of voters said no on Proposition 6. The vote means the state will preserve the 2017 statute, which generates roughly $5 billion for road repairs and improvements per year, with a substantial portion for transit.
With their roads in some of the worst shape in the country, many California commuters are breathing a sigh of relief. So are transportation advocates around the country who worried that a gas tax repeal in the vanguard state of progressive causes could spell doom for similar efforts in other parts of the U.S. For the same reason, Proposition 6 could have made it “almost impossible to have a substantive discussion about raising the federal gas tax,” said Scott Bogren, the executive director of the Community Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based transit advocacy group.
Wakanda city stays intact
The plot to take nearly half of a black-led city in south metro Atlanta, Stockbridge, and turn it over to a country-club anchored community so that it can create a new city was thwarted last night. The initiative would have approved the unprecedented move of taking land from an already incorporated city, and could have wrecked Stockbridge’s economy by draining it of much of its taxable properties and revenue sources. Leaders of the initiative to sever the Eagle’s Landing neighborhood said they wanted to form a new city so that they could bring more upscale establishments to their area.
Finance agencies such as Moody’s, S&P Global, and Capital One Public Funding, LLC all noted that creating Eagle’s Landing in this manner would have negatively impacted the credit and bond ratings of all cities across Georgia, because of the potential for them to cannibalize, or become cannibalized by other municipalities in a similar way.
While the Eagle’s Landing cityhood ballot was defeated, this does not mean that Stockbridge and Georgia have seen the last of it. Other places in Georgia that have attempted to form new cities also failed to survive ballot referendums, only to later regroup with new blueprints and plans for a new city that eventually passed. Stockbridge Mayor Anthony Ford told the Henry Herald newspaper that he was going to reach out to the people behind the Eagle’s Landing city proposal to discuss with them now “how to best mend the community.”
Minimum wage will rise in two conservative states
With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 and no signs of changing, the fight for higher local wage floors has been propelled city by city, and state by state. As of this year, 29 states and D.C. had approved minimum wages above federal levels.
Yesterday, two of them decided to raise the floor a little higher: Arkansas voters will raise their $8.50 minimum wage to $11 an hour by 2021; and Missouri voters will raise their $7.85 minimum wage to $12 by 2023. Both Republican-leaning, the states’ choice to expand pay for low-wage workers comes on the heels of other conservative labor victories: Arizona, Colorado, and Maine also voted to raise their minimums earlier this year.
“When it comes to the minimum wage, the biggest gap isn’t between Republicans and Democrats,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of The Fairness Project, in a statement. “It’s between politicians who don’t want to raise the wage and the people they represent.”
A step forward on increasing housing affordability in California
Solving the housing crisis in California will likely take more than just a reimagining of state and local budgets. But in a sweep Tuesday night, California voters approved several propositions that would collect billions to try.
Propositions 1 and 2 will free up $6 billion in state bonds and taxes to put towards affordable housing and homelessness initiatives across the state—funding things like housing for mentally ill and homeless residents, mortgage assistance for low-income families, and affordable housing for veterans.
In San Francisco, voters approved Prop C, a hotly contested measure that will charge the city’s largest companies a marginally higher tax to help fund homelessness initiatives. With the estimated $300 million in extra annual funding, the city plans to build 5,000 new affordable units, and create more than 1,000 new shelter beds. Despite millions in opposition funding from Big Tech, Prop C was approved with 60 percent of the vote—but crucially, not the two-thirds needed to protect it from being challenged in court.
Two other proposed reforms to the affordability problem, Proposition 10 and Proposition 5, were resoundingly rejected. The first would have lifted restrictions on expanding rent control policies across the state—advocates said it would stop rents from inflating and protect tenants, and the ultimately victorious opponents said it would deter sorely needed new construction. And the second would have lowered the barriers to moving for some older residents, potentially opening up more housing but slashing property taxes in the process.
Reconstruction-era Louisiana jury policy reformed
Louisiana voters approved a new state constitutional amendment that would require unanimous agreement from juries in felony and capital crime court trials. Before this, Louisiana was just one of two states (the other is Oregon) that could convict defendants in serious felony trials with less than complete agreement amongst their juries. In other words, a jury could convict someone of a death penalty-eligible crime even if there were one or two holdouts.
Louisiana’s policy stems from a wider package of laws to disenfranchise African Americans in the post-slavery Reconstruction era. Since going into effect in the late 19th century, the law has made it more difficult for black defendants on trial in Louisiana because racial minorities serving in minority capacities in the jury box have been overruled by white juror majorities. Prison reform advocates who fought for the new constitutional amendment say that it was part of why Louisiana has been known as the “incarceration capital of the world” for years.
Norris Henderson, executive director of the organization VOTE who himself spent decades in jail because of a non-unanimous jury conviction, told Nola.com, “This is probably the most important ballot measure ever in my lifetime.”
Baltimore bans water privatization
Baltimore voters took a first-of-its-kind move on Tuesday, as many cities grapple with how to better treat their water: It banned water privatization. Among the arguments in favor of the ban was that rate hikes often accompany privatization. And the Maryland city has a history of escalating water costs.
Critics warn that stopping future negotiations with water companies will, in turn, halt any modernization of Baltimore’s water grid. But advocates maintain that keeping water public is best for users. “With water corporations circling around Baltimore over the past several years, ramped-up privatization ploys last Spring, and a federal administration hellbent on propping up corporate power over peoples’ rights, it is momentous that the city has voted to keep its water public,” said Rianna Eckel, the Maryland Organizer for water advocacy group Food & Water Watch, in a statement.
Portland companies will fund environmental equity projects
An EPA report from earlier this year found evidence of environmental racism, including people of color being more likely to live near polluters. On Election Day, Portland voters agreed to address the inequities of pollution and climate change with the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Initiative, also called Portland Ballot Measure 26-201. The initiative will implement a 1 percent surcharge on retail corporations that have $1 billion in gross revenues nationally and $500,000 locally.
The funds will go toward clean energy projects such as weatherizing homes, installing solar and other renewable energy projects, providing job and contractor training, expanding local food production, and building green infrastructure in Portland while focusing on communities of color and people with low incomes. The ballot initiative, for which a former Portland mayor expressed his support on CityLab, stipulates that at least 50 percent of the projects “should specifically benefit low-income residents and communities of color.”
In a less progressive development, voters in Washington State decided not to impose a carbon fee, which would have funneled millions into clean energy and forest-conservation projects as well as public transit.
Keeping money out of politics—and giving it to voters
As the campaign contributions needed to run a successful local race inflate, cities have tried to tamp down on political spending, and help regular (read: less wealthy) people compete with national organizations for political clout over candidates.
On Tuesday, Portland, Oregon, approved a measure that will cap campaign contributions; Denver created a city fund that will match small-dollar donations to local candidates; and Baltimore adopted a “Fair Election Fund,” which will allow for public financing.
For Seattle public school students, free college in reach
By raising the property taxes on some Seattle homes, voters have created a new, expanded education fund that will fund subsidized preschool, support programs in Seattle Public Schools—and send a few public high school graduates to community college for free every year.
Mayor Jenny Durkan feared that the levy would be more contentious, clouded by a “hangover” from the city’s war with the business community over another measure that would have taxed businesses to pay for affordable housing and homelessness initiatives in the city. But this education proposal turned out to be widely uncontroversial, passing with two thirds of the vote. One potential reason for its success: While Amazon poured thousands into killing the homelessness tax, it was this measure’s largest financial supporter.
Fluoride is staying out of city water
Fluoridated water has become a hot topic in some communities, where residents want it out of their water. The policy had a controversial beginning, when in 1945 the U.S. Public Health Service added fluoride to the water supply in Grand Rapids, Michigan, without residents’ consent. The fluoride addition was an experiment, and the results were resounding: Within 11 years, the rate of cavities had dropped by 60 percent among children in Grand Rapids’ schools, inspiring water fluoridation adoption across the country. By 2014, according to the CDC, about two thirds of the U.S. population lived in places with a fluoridated water supply.
But the anti-fluoridation movement remains strong. Last month, NBC News reported that anti-fluoridationists, who aim to reverse this trend of water fluoridation, have been circulating conspiracy theories online about fluoridation being part of a “communist plot to dumb down Americans.” On Election Day, residents of Brooksville, Florida voted to keep fluoride in their water supply (according to early results) and Houston, Missouri voted to stop fluoridation. And Springfield, Ohio, voted no on adding fluoride to their water supply. Some 74 other cities have banned water fluoridation, according to the American Dental Association.
— Nicole Javorsky