Republicans currently have greater control over state legislatures than at any point since the Civil War. However, thanks to the ability to pass laws via ballot initiatives, that isn’t stopping progressives from trying to raise the minimum wage and pass paid sick leave across the nation, and activists are putting several such measures before voters this year. These battles come amid national Democratic efforts to secure a federal minimum wage increase and the Fight for $15 movement galvanizing workers in many major cities. Hillary Clinton has also made paid medical leave a centerpiece of her 2016 campaign platform.
Increasing the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour to over $10 polls extremely well, with surveys in practically every state finding majorities in favor of the idea. And many polls, sometimes even in conservative states like Arizona, often demonstrate significant support for a higher threshold, like $12 or even $15 an hour. Likewise, paid leave is overwhelmingly popular with voters. That includes major backing from Republican voters, despite their party’s legislators almost uniformly refusing to even hold a vote on either measure.
The soaring popularity of these pro-worker policies is why ballot initiatives are so critical to overcoming Republican opposition. Despite historic low turnout in 2014, minimum wage increases succeeded in every state where they were on the ballot—even in red states like Arkansas. With Democrats poised for a decisive victory in this year’s higher-turnout presidential election, the time is ripe for several states to secure further wage increases and mandate paid leave via the ballot box in 2016.
Arizona, Colorado, and Maine will vote on whether to increase their minimum wage levels to $12 by 2020, at which point they would index them to inflation. The Arizona measure would also mandate employers provide paid sick leave. Washington could raise its minimum wage to an even more audacious $13.50 by 2020, when it would similarly tie it to inflation, and the same initiative would also require employers offer paid sick leave.
Unfortunately, progressives aren’t only waging offensive battles in the fight for workers’ rights and compensation. After South Dakota voters raised the state’s minimum wage to $8.50 two years ago from the federal minimum of $7.25, the state’s Republican-dominated legislature passed a law to lower even that small increase back to $7.50 for workers under the age of 18. Fortunately, voters have the chance to veto that effort at the polls in November.
As we’ve seen with the fight to liberalize marijuana laws, ballot measures are proving to be the surest way for progressives to overcome Republican intransigence and enact meaningful change in our minimum wage and paid leave laws—change that has broad support from the public, which will hopefully be reflected in November.