The Democratic brand did not fare well, to put it mildly, in congressional and governors’ races on Tuesday. Most were contests of political blame, driven by ideological hatred for President Obama. But when the ballot offered a choice on an actual policy, rather than between candidates with a D or R next to their names, voters made notably liberal decisions in both red and blue states.
On at least six high-profile and often contentious issues — minimum wage, marijuana legalization, criminal justice reform, abortion rights, gun control and environmental protection — voters approved ballot measures, in some cases overwhelmingly, that were directly at odds with the positions of many of the Republican winners.
MINIMUM WAGE Initiatives to raise the minimum wage appeared on the ballots in four deep-red states — Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota — and passed in all of them. The new hourly minimums range from $8.50 in Arkansas by 2017 to $9.75 in Alaska by 2016. Minimum-wage increases were also approved in San Francisco (to $15 an hour by 2018) and Oakland (to $12.25 an hour by 2015). In all, an estimated 609,000 low-wage workers will see raises from these approved increases.
In addition, voters in Illinois and in several cities and counties in Wisconsin approved nonbinding measures calling for minimums of $10 or more. If legislators follow through on the voters’ will, 1.1 million workers in those states would see raises.
The latest increases bring to 29 the number of states that exceed, or soon will exceed, the paltry federal minimum of $7.25 an hour, which has been in place since 2009. They underscore the broad support for higher minimums and suggest that Republicans who continue to oppose a higher federal minimum could pay a price in the 2016 elections, when lower-wage workers and those who support them could turn out in higher numbers.
MARIJUANA Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize marijuana for recreational purposes (Colorado and Washington were the first two), while the District of Columbia repealed all criminal and civil penalties for possession and allowed limited, private cultivation of the drug.
Even where pro-legalization measures lost, advocates had reason to feel positive. A proposed constitutional amendment in Florida to legalize medical marijuana received 57 percent of the vote, but it still failed because amendments there require at least 60 percent approval.
Before Tuesday’s election, it was already clear that Americans had turned against prohibition because more than 30 states had liberalized their marijuana laws. Maybe elected officials, who have lagged behind the public on this issue, will finally have the courage to embrace change.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM For the second time in three years, Californians voted to shorten the sentences of people serving time in prison. The state — which created the notorious three-strikes law — remains under federal court order to reduce prison overcrowding.
In 2012, voters overwhelmingly approved Proposition 36, which has led to the early release of more than 1,900 three-strikers serving life in prison. And there has not been an increase in crime. Proposition 47 on this week’s ballot converts low-level drug and property offenses — like shoplifting, writing bad checks or simple drug possession — from felonies to misdemeanors. It is expected to reduce the sentences of as many as 10,000 inmates.
On Tuesday, the measure, which enjoyed broad bipartisan support, passed with more than 58 percent of the vote. Many politicians are still afraid of looking soft on crime, but California’s experience shows that voters can lead the way.
ABORTION RIGHTS The overwhelming rejection of “personhood” measures in Colorado and North Dakota dealt another well-deserved blow to the effort by some opponents of reproductive rights to ban all abortions (and some common forms of contraception) by passing laws giving fertilized eggs legal rights and protections that apply to individuals.
The defeat in Colorado was not unexpected. Voters there handily quashed earlier “personhood” initiatives in 2008 and 2010, and they were not deceived by this round’s revised wording. But few expected a similar proposal to be rejected by 64 percent of voters in North Dakota, a conservative state that — like Mississippi, which roundly defeated a “personhood” initiative three years ago — has just one abortion provider remaining.
Unfortunately, opponents of abortion rights scored a victory in Tennessee, where nearly 53 percent of voters approved a state constitutional amendment that gives the Republican-led State Legislature leeway to curtail access to safe and legal abortion care. While nothing will change immediately, there will likely be a rush to enact new abortion restrictions beyond those already in place in the months ahead. But politicians in Tennessee would be wrong to read Tuesday’s relatively close vote as a mandate to obliterate a woman’s fundamental right.
GUN CONTROL In the aftermath of the school massacre in 2012 in Newtown, Conn., Congress — caving to the National Rifle Association — did nothing to protect the public from gun violence. In Washington State, a campaign started by outraged church and community leaders fared much better. Initiative 594, which will require criminal and mental-health checks on gun buyers, drew an impressive 60 percent voter support on Tuesday.
Just as important, the gun lobby’s measure — Initiative 591, which was on the same ballot — would have blocked background checks and was defeated by 55 percent of the vote. Other campaigns are underway at the statehouse level, supported by former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s well-financed gun-safety movement and others. Opponents decried Mr. Bloomberg’s campaign as outside interference but got nowhere this time.
CONSERVATION Environmentalists who may be singing the blues over the election results can take heart from approval of a record $13 billion in land conservation measures in states and cities across the country. Two were especially significant.
In Florida, a constitutional amendment will dedicate $9 billion in real estate transfer taxes over the next 20 years to preserving open spaces, including major investments in the threatened Everglades.
New Jersey voters dedicated $2.15 billion in corporate tax revenue to land conservation, also over the next 20 years, rescuing a popular program that was on the verge of extinction. The message for President Obama is that the public will support executive actions to protect threatened wilderness, even if Congress does not.
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