While Americans have understandably been consumed by the fallout from Donald Trump’s upset presidential victory, many states and cities voted on key ballot measures that will have far-reaching policy consequences regardless of what happens in Washington, DC. Marijuana legalization, the minimum wage, gun safety, taxes, health care, the environment, and voting rights dominated the slew of proposals facing voter approval. And although Republicans are set to dominate in the nation’s capital, progressives scored many key victories on 2016’s major ballot measures.
Recreational marijuana will now be legal under state law in eight states with over one-fifth of the US. California, Massachusetts, and Nevada all passed legalization measures by a comfortable margin, while Maine’s measure squeaked by with 50.2 percent in favor and 49.8 percent opposed. Arizona voters rejected legalization, but the close 52-48 margin likely means advocates will soon try again as public opinion continues to trend against prohibition. Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota passed or expanded access to medical marijuana, making it available in three-fifths of the US. Finally, Denver, Colorado, passed an ordinance to allow public marijuana usage at certain businesses, which had previously been banned.
Minimum wage, paid leave, and organized labor
Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington all resoundingly voted to raise their state minimum wages to at least $12 an hour by 2020, with Washington’s going up to $13.50, and indexed to inflation thereafter. The same measures also mandated employers offer paid medical leave in Arizona and Washington, which has been part of a growing progressive push in recent years. However, voters in Berkeley, California, rejected two separate measures that would have sped up the timetable for when the city implements California’s new statewide $15-an-hour minimum wage to either 2017 or 2019, since the city council had recently passed its own law to introduce it in 2018.
But in further good news, Virginia voters rejected an effort by the Republican legislature to enshrine its anti-union “right-to-work” law into the state constitution by a 54-46 margin, giving a future Democratic legislature hope to repeal the law.
Gun-safety advocates scored a few key victories in 2016, too. California’s electorate sanctioned background checks for ammunition purchasers and banned ownership of high-capacity magazines. Washington also enabled restricting firearm access for those deemed by court order to be a possible violent threat to themselves or others. Nevada voters just barely approved expanding background checks on gun purchases by a 51-49 spread, but Maine voters unfortunately narrowly rejected a similar measure by just a 52-48 margin.
California and Maine both voted for an income surtax on the very rich. Los Angeles County, California, which is the nation’s largest and has over 10 million people, passed a measure to raise sales taxes to finance a far-reaching transportation infrastructure plan. However, voters in four Detroit metropolitan area counties, home to over four million people, rejected a property tax levy that would have financed a regional public transportation system. Oklahoma voters rejected raising sales taxes to fund education, while Oregon voters blocked a proposed tax increase on big businesses. Finally, Washington voters resoundingly defeated a measure that would have implemented the nation’s first carbon tax, thanks in part to stiff opposition from many progressives.
Colorado voters opted to join the growing list of states allowing physician-assisted suicide for terminally ill patients. Californians supported a measure that will increase taxes on tobacco products to fund health-related programs, while they also passed a measure to solidify state funding for hospitals. Albany, Oakland, and San Francisco in California, and Boulder in Colorado all voted to join the recent spurt of cities imposing a tax on soda and other sugary beverages to help fight obesity.
As expected, Colorado voters emphatically rejected a measure that would have established the nation’s first single-payer healthcare system. Colorado also voted against raising its taxes on tobacco products, as did Missouri and North Dakota. Lastly, California voted 54-46 against a measure that would have restricted the prices the state would pay to purchase prescription drugs after the pharmaceutical industry spent over $100 million to ensure its defeat, vastly outspending proponents.
The Death penalty, the environment, and more
Nebraskans vetoed by a wide 61-39 margin a state law that would have banned the death penalty. California voters sadly opted not only to keep the death penalty by a 54-46 margin, but also by 51-49 to speed up its use in certain cases. Fortunately, California also voted to reform criminal justice sentencing procedures and allow judges rather than prosecutors to determine when juveniles should be tried as adults. The Golden State narrowly voted by a 52-47 margin to uphold a ban on plastic shopping bags, while a measure to require condoms in pornographic films failed 54-46. Monterey County, a county of 400,000 located south of the Bay Area in California, decided to ban fracking.
Voting rights and electoral reform
A wide array of voting access, campaign finance, and electoral system reforms also succeeded across several states and major cities. Alaska voted to join the five other states that will automatically register voters who interact with certain government services. Berkeley, California, passed a measure to let 16-year-olds vote in school board elections, although a similar measure to let them vote in all local elections failed 53-47 in San Francisco, which could have become the first big city in America to lower its voting age. However, San Francisco did, by a 53-47 margin, approve letting non-citizen parents of school children vote in school board elections. Sadly, Missouri voters gave their overwhelming support to a constitutional amendment enabling the state to implement a Republican-backed voter ID requirement.
On the campaign finance front, Missouri was one of a dozen states with no limit on direct financial contributions to candidates, and it finally decided to impose such limits in a landslide. Voters in South Dakota, by a 52-48 margin, have made it the first state to give voters campaign-donation vouchers to give to candidates in an effort to level the playing field and empower grassroots campaigns, while it also imposed certain other campaign finance restrictions. Berkeley, California, created a public campaign financing system to accomplish the same goal. Unfortunately, a donation-voucher measure narrowly failed by a 54-46 margin in Washington. Both Washington and California easily approved advisory measures urging their legislators to work to overturn Citizens United.
After a 52-48 vote in favor, Maine is set to become the first state in the nation to adopt instant-runoff voting, where voters rank their candidates in order of preference, and last-place finishers are eliminated sequentially until someone has a majority, with the goal of preventing a candidate from winning simply because multiple opponents split the vote. Colorado approved switching to a presidential primary and opening up primaries to independents. The Centennial State will also join Florida in requiring a supermajority to pass initiatives, and while the 55 percent threshold might be a good thing for matters as far-reaching as constitutional amendments, the requirement that signatures be gathered in every state Senate district was intended to thwart the ability of progressives to put measures on the ballot in the first place.
South Dakota decisively rejected creating an independent redistricting commission by a 57-43 margin. The state also voted against joining its neighbor Nebraska in switching to nonpartisan elections, which might have helped elect more Democrats and moderate Republicans. San Diego, California, will ensure its local elections will take place concurrently with the presidential election when it voted to require a nonpartisan runoff be held in November even if one candidate already won a majority in the June primary, bringing it in line with California’s top-two system for state and congressional races. Lastly, Washington, D.C., approved a symbolic vote for statehood in a landslide.
Note: This piece has been edited to clarify that the Berkeley, California city council passed its own minimum wage increase, rendering the ballot measures moot.