As Americans around the country vote in the most important presidential election in generations, voters in many parts of the country will have the chance to weigh in directly on crucial public policy measures. Thanks to ballot measures, many major cities also will decide on a range of issues like raising the minimum wage, funding vital government services like public transportation, and reforming the very way they run elections themselves. And as per usual, California leads the way in the American experiment in direct democracy—sometimes for ill, but oftentimes to the benefit of progressive policies.
San Francisco and Oakland in California and Boulder, Colorado, and could also vote to impose excise taxes on soft drinks and other sugary beverages in an effort to help combat obesity. Billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has spent upward of $18 million on the two California measures this year and has made soda taxes one of his main national causes, supporting a successful Berkeley voter initiative in 2014 and the Philadelphia city council’s soda tax passed earlier this year. There are pros and cons to these sorts of taxes, and unfortunately they are regressive, but cities are nonetheless looking for ways to improve health outcomes.
Two California Bay Area cities could both let additional classes of people in certain local elections. San Francisco might lower the voting age in local races from 18 to 16, while they could also grant non-citizens the right to vote in school board elections if their children attend public schools. Berkeley could similarly lower the voting age to 16 for its own school board. They would become the first major American cities to lower the voting age, following two small municipalities in Maryland. Several countries like Austria allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote, while New Zealand and many European Union members allow non-citizens to vote in local elections.
Many progressives have embraced both of these reforms, arguing that there is little to separate an 18-year-old from a 16-year-old, the latter of whom can drive, consent to sex with adults, and be tried as an adult for crimes in many states. Indeed, 21 states and the District of Columbia even allow 17-year-olds to vote in primaries if they’ll turn 18 by the general election. Local governments and school boards in particular make key decisions that affect non-citizens, who often have school-going children who have citizenship, and these adults want a say in those governing matters. You might be surprised to learn that non-citizens were allowed to vote in many parts of the U.S. until a series of xenophobic policy changes in the 1920s, so these proposed reforms would in some sense not be new.
The Fight for $15 movement has made critical gains in recent years, advancing a $15 minimum wage in California and New York. However, the city of Berkeley has notably higher costs of living than even California as a whole, which is already expensive. It could vote to institute that higher wage level much sooner than the state overall, which is set to phase it in slowly by 2022. Two competing measures seek to hasten the higher wage level to either 2017 or 2019.
Another voting-related measure in Berkeley would establish a public campaign financing system that provides candidates with $6 for every $1 a donor gives up to $50 in an bid to help level the playing field and support grassroots campaigns. This effort is similar to the “democracy vouchers” a few states are considering adopting this year, and success could serve as a model for other states and municipalities.
One final California voting reform could take place in San Diego, which is the country’s eighth-largest city and the biggest one with a Republican mayor. Currently, candidates for local office who win a majority of the vote in the June nonpartisan primary win outright, but 2016’s measure would require a November runoff regardless of whether someone wins a majority in the primary, bringing the city in line with the top-two system used in state and federal races. Very few big cities elect their mayors concurrently with the presidential election, when turnout is at its peak. San Diego moving to ensure that it does so could help give Democrats a boost, since the low-turnout primary usually features a whiter, older, and more Republican-leaning electorate than in November.
Voters in the biggest metropolitan areas in California and Michigan could also pass far-reaching plans to invest in infrastructure and public transportation. Los Angeles County is the nation’s largest and, with over 10 million people, it’s more populous than over 40 states. It could decide whether to increase its sales tax to raise tens of billions for much-needed infrastructure repairs in a region that is infamous for its traffic and sprawl. Meanwhile, the four Michigan counties in the Detroit area—Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, and Wayne—could raise property taxes to fund an integrated regional public transportation system to serve their 4.2 million residents.
Monterey County, California, located south of the Bay Area and home to over 400,000 people, could join the growing list of localities to ban fracking in an effort to protect the environment and combat climate change-inducing fossil-fuel emissions. Denver, Colorado, could also go a different sort of green. Although Colorado became one of the first two states to legalize recreational marijuana in 2012, it’s still illegal to consume it in public places, leaving many users and businesses in a gray area. The city could vote to allow certain businesses to set up designated places for those who want to use marijuana outside of their own homes.
Finally, Washington, D.C., could cast a symbolic vote in favor of statehood. Although this measure won’t have any legal effect, it would demonstrate popular support for ending the District of Columbia’s unjust treatment as essentially the ward of a hostile Republican-controlled Congress. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and key national Democrats such as Hillary Clinton have voiced their support for statehood. Strong local backing for this change in status could help mobilize congressional Democrats to act the next time they control Congress, granting them the legitimacy to do so and finally end the District’s taxation without representation.
Many other municipalities across the country will vote on a wide range of other issues. Please tell us in comments about any interesting measures on the ballot in your area.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described a ballot measure in the city of Los Angeles regarding the minimum wage. It did not make the ballot this year.