Ballot Initiatives: Progressives’ Secret Weapon?

On November 6th, 2018, Americans headed to the polls to vote in the first midterm election of the Donald Trump presidency. The major stories that came out of that election revolved around the takeover of the House of Representatives by Democrats, as well as the failure of multiple high-profile Democrats to win in states like Florida and Texas. Yet one of the most impactful and underappreciated results of the midterms came state-by-state, as voters bypassed their state legislatures and directly voted on ballot initiatives that involved everything from marijuana laws, to redistricting, to the minimum wage. Unlike partisan politics, ballot initiatives allow voters to make specific policy decisions mostly devoid of party affiliation. This means that, roughly speaking, ballot initiatives provide an opportunity to see the values of a populace that may not come through in polling. This election cycle, and those that came before, should give progressives hope.  

Idaho, Nebraska, and Utah are likely not the first place that Progressives would look for a victory. All three states are dominated by a Republican trifecta of governor, state senate and state house. All of their congresspeople (minus one, in Utah) are Republican, and all of their senators are Republicans as well. Yet these three states passed Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act, opening the door for millions of dollars in funding to expand care for the poorest Americans. Ironically, many of the Republicans in these states, such as Nebraska’s governor Pete Ricketts, had campaigned explicitly against Medicaid expansion, and in previous elections Republicans had swept to power on anti-Affordable Care Act platforms. And these weren’t the only ones.

To the casual observer, Arkansas is anything but left-leaning. Like the aforementioned states, every single partisan statewide office, and every congressional seat and senate seat, is occupied by a Republican. Republicans hold strong majorities in both houses of their state government. Yet, on November 6th, 2018, it voted by a 37 point margin to increase its minimum wage to 11 dollars an hour. By doing so, Arkansas will effectively have the highest per-capita minimum wage in the country (when adjusted for cost of living). Voters in neighboring Missouri also increased their minimum wage and legalized medical marijuana, yet they paradoxically also voted out their only statewide Democrat, senator Claire McCaskill, and elected a conservative Republican in her place. What’s the reason for these seemingly contradictory outcomes?

The answer is simple: when policy is divorced from labels, Americans get a lot more progressive. In issue after issue, policies associated with the progressive movement poll far better than partisan candidates who might push for these very same ideas. For example, before the November 6th election, polls in deep-red Idaho showed that 70% of respondents supported closing the insurance coverage gap that comes from not expanding Medicaid. Yet this is the same state that voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton 59%-27%. Donald Trump ran on repealing Obamacare, and Hillary Clinton ran on protecting it. The biggest difference? Trump versus Clinton means Republican versus Democrat, and a voter’s party fealty is powerful. Closing insurance coverage gaps involves no such partisan rancor, and allows voters to analyze the issue without distractions. This phenomenon was replicated in state after state:

  • 62% of Americans support legalizing marijuana, and in 2018 voters in multiple states did just that. Michigan, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah, all states that voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, either completely legalized marijuana or legalized medical marijuana.
  • A bipartisan poll found that 73% of voters support ending gerrymandering, even if it meant the party they don’t support would make gains. On election day, all four states that had redistricting initiatives passed them. This ranged from the blue state of Colorado to the red state of Missouri, demonstrating that progressive policy can cut across geography and the partisan political spectrum.
  • A Pew Research poll found that 51% of voters oppose offshore oil drilling, while 42% support it. In 2018, Florida voters decided by an overwhelming 38-point margin to place their already-existent ban on offshore drilling into the constitution, where it is far more permanent and powerful. This is the same state that Donald Trump won in 2016 and which, in 2018, elected a Republican to its governorship and replaced its only statewide Democrat with a Republican. Furthermore, the Trump Administration has made increasing offshore drilling a priority, meaning that voters directly vote against the very president they elected.

While it appears that ballot initiatives are a perfect progressive silver bullet, critics may question whether this is truly a trend, or whether this progressive wave of ballot initiatives was a one-off. After all, past ballot initiatives have been used by conservatives to score numerous victories, such as the property tax cap in California and same-sex marriage bans in dozens of states. In 2018, two states even limited abortion through referendum and others voted down progressive initiatives on the environment and taxes. These seem to run counter to the point that voters are progressive when left to their own devices.

However, as with any election in the United States, ballot initiatives are inextricably linked with campaign spending. No matter how progressive the electorate, it is still true that the side that is most able to get its message out has the upper hand. And, since progressive groups tend to be opposed to powerful and entrenched groups like oil and gas companies, pharmaceutical conglomerates, and big banks, they often find themselves outspent. Not all defeats can be attributed to this disparity, but it is an extremely relevant factor that cannot be dismissed when studying the past failures of progressive movements in statewide referendums. In Colorado, for example, a ballot initiative designed to create a safe distance between fracking wells and public spaces was defeated 52%-48% by voters. On the surface, it appears to be a progressive defeat. However, campaign finance shows that the “no” campaign outspent the “yes” campaign by roughly $30 million. This funding disparity came from a shadow group named “Protect Colorado,” where the top 5 donors are all oil and gas companies.

And in California, a 2016 ballot initiative seeking to tie the cost of prescription drugs to the Office of Veterans Affairs, which is allowed to negotiate drug prices and thus receives cheaper drugs on average, was defeated 53%-47%. Does this mean that Californians oppose reducing drug prices? Superficially, it may appear so. Yet it’s also very important to note the variety of factors that led to the defeat. For one, the vague wording of the initiative led to a split on interpretation, meaning that there was no united front on the left. Furthermore, we again saw a big disparity in advertising budget — the opposition campaign spent $90 million more than the support campaign on advertising and canvassing. The top 5 donors to the opposition campaign was a constellation of drug companies, which poured millions of dollars into heavy advertising campaigns. Had the fundraising been more equal, the results may have been different. Indeed, it is notable that such an eye-popping funding disparity led only to a modest 6-point victory for the “no” campaign. Even if policy seems progressive on the surface, wording and funding disparities will inevitably have an effect on where initiatives succeed.

As with all of politics, the answer is not black and white. Ballot initiatives are not the be-all-end-all of progressive policy: wording, funding, and national attitudes all play an important role. That being said, it is clear that there is a fundamental disconnect between elected, partisan politics and the actual will of the people. When it comes to healthcare, infrastructure, criminal justice, and so on, the United States lags behind the rest of the developed world. Elected officials seem to overestimate the conservative views of voters, continuously shying away from tough topics like criminal justice reform, healthcare, and the environment. Yet 2018 proved that, while politicians drag their feet in addressing the issues affecting the United States, a quiet progressive revolution is taking place among the electorate. It would be unwise for any party to ignore it.


Leave a Reply

Please Login to comment
Notify of