Everywhere’s in Play: Ballot Initiatives and the Midterms

John Roark/The Post-Register via AP

Voters cast their ballots in the 2018 midterm election at Apple Athletics in Idaho Falls, Idaho. 

Now that we’ve had some time to catch our breath and reflect, we can evaluate the results of the midterms with a bit of distance. There were many important outcomes, especially the flipping of the House of Representatives. For us, even larger was the confirmation that our democracy, with all its increasingly evident flaws, still has a pulse. It can still self-correct.  

But while most national media focused on the congressional races, progressives across the country were also paying close attention to the results of state ballot initiatives on election night. Voters in states like Missouri, Oregon, and Washington not only had the opportunity to vote for progressive candidates on November 6—they also had the chance to vote directly for forward-looking state policies on health care, taxation, climate change, and a host of other critical issues. We cannot cover the electoral outcomes of every initiative on state ballots this month, since there were over 150 different ballot measures across 37 states, but there were several key races with important implications for the future of progressive economic policy.

Some of the most progressive initiatives, in the sense that they do the most good for the most people who need the help, were those on expanding the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid eligibility provisions and raising the minimum wage. The Medicaid expansions passed by large margins in Utah (6.6 percentage points), Nebraska (7), and Idaho (21.2)—traditionally conservative strongholds that each had a Republican governor, two Republican senators, and entirely Republican congressional delegations going into November’s elections. Consequently, about 363,000 more people will be able to benefit from the greater financial security and improved health outcomes that Medicaid provides. 

Minimum wage increases were also approved with overwhelming majorities in other conservative states—62 percent of voters in Missouri and 68 percent of voters in Arkansas elected to raise their state minimum wages. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that because of these victories, about 300,000 workers in Arkansas and 677,000 workers in Missouri will receive much needed pay raises. 

These results show that progressive policies can receive broad popular support in unlikely places. But more pointedly, it also shows that people are willing to entertain straightforward, concrete solutions to the problems they face, even when those solutions create cognitive dissonance with the dominant ideology in their states. The absence of reliable, affordable health coverage and fair pay in low-wage sectors is acutely felt by too many Americans. They are willing to hear what’s on offer. 

Consider the offers that conservatives in these areas put forth. What they offered was market solutions: unleash market forces from the chains of government programs, they repeatedly argued, and the cost of coverage will tank and low wages will rise. But people in states both blue and red recognize the pervasive market failures in both health care and low-wage labor markets. That became clear during the 2017 debate to repeal the ACA, which polls showed the public had come around to supporting. It became even clearer during this fall’s campaigns, when President Trump and Republican candidates endeavored to convince voters that they, not the Democrats, were the protectors of guaranteed coverage for pre-existing conditions. At one campaign rally, Trump got so caught up in his nonsense that he warned the crowd that they’d better vote for Republicans or the Democrats would“obliterate Obamacare!”

Medicaid expansion and minimum wage increases were not the only policy victories in the midterms. Voters in Oregon and Georgia defeated ballot initiatives that might have had devastating consequences. Measure 104, an amendment to Oregon’s state constitution that would have required a supermajority vote to repeal or reform tax breaks, went down by almost two-to-one. As a number of our CBPP colleagues documented in a new paper, such supermajority requirements originate from nineteenth century white supremacist maneuverings to avoid funding social services for people of color. 

Another crucial outcome was the defeat of a ballot initiative in Henry County, Georgia that would have allowed the predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods in the city of Stockbridge to secede and form a new city named after a country club, Eagle’s Landing. The creation of Eagle’s Landing would have entrenched the patterns of racial and socioeconomic segregation that already exist in metro Atlanta, eroded the voting power of Black residents in the County, and devastated the tax base in the remaining portions of Stockbridge. 

Not every ballot initiative was a victory for progressives. The most notable loss was the failure of Washington state’s carbon tax, Initiative 1631, that would have used revenue from a carbon tax to invest in public services for low-income energy consumers, programs to help fossil fuel workers transition to other jobs, and initiatives to protect the state’s ecosystems. Because imposing more accurate prices on carbon emissions is such a credible way to combat climate change, it was disheartening to see this tax fail by a significant margin in one of the most reliably blue states in the country (worse yet, this was the second unsuccessful run WA has made at taxing carbon). 

So why did it fail? One explanation was the deeply funded opposition by powerful corporate interests from outside the state. Almost all the $31.5 million that was raised by the “No on 1631” campaign came from outside oil companies like BP and Koch Industries. Supporters of the tax were outspent two-to-one by big oil. Design issues may have also played a role—for example,1631 dropped the rebates of the earlier proposal, which had been designed to make the carbon tax less regressive. However, since this is the second time in two years that a carbon tax ballot initiative has failed in Washington state, 1631’s’s defeat may simply be telling us that the resistance to tax increases remains very strong in America. This poses a serious long-term problem for a country that, based on its aging population alone, as well as climate, geopolitics, infrastructure, and inequality, is going to need more revenue. Of course, this problem was exacerbated by the Republicans deficit-financed tax cut. 

Nonetheless, with support for progressive policies growing even in Republican strongholds, there is mounting evidence that we have a lot more room than we may have assumed to fight for economic justice in unexpected places. At the same time, systemic barriers to progress are as steep as ever, including a deeply entrenched Republican donor class that’s never been richer, with far too many entry points through which they can thwart democracy.

And yet, the lesson of the midterms is resounding: resistance is anything but futile. The ballot initiative victories in deeply conservative states illustrate that no state, county, city, and street corner should be ruled out as a potential battleground for the promotion of a real agenda to reconnect people of all political stripes to an economy that has long left them behind.

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