Election 2008  
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Depraved Right-Wing Attack Efforts Go Down in Flames

Voters rejected right-wing attacks on reproductive and labor rights in California, Colorado and South Dakota.
 
 
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Howard Jarvis must be spinning in his Hollywood Hills grave. Exactly 30 years after the California Republican spearheaded Proposition 13, the landmark ballot initiative that slashed property taxes in the Golden State and heralded the Reagan Revolution, voters on Tuesday rejected every major tax-cutting initiative put before them. In Massachusetts, Oregon and North Dakota, attempts to cut income and corporate taxes at the expense of state budgets went down in flames. On the night Democrats took back the White House and expanded their Congressional majorities, voters also repulsed right-wing attacks on reproductive and labor rights in California, Colorado and South Dakota.

There were also setbacks. In Arizona and California, gay marriage was banned; in the latter's case, the vote overturned a state Supreme Court decision. Also in California, the failure of Prop. 5 delayed the expansion of drug rehabilitation at the expense of criminalization for nonviolent offenders. In Arkansas, legislation was approved that restricts gay adoption and fostering. In Nebraska, a state that is 94 percent white, affirmative action programs were brought to an end. As of this writing, it is still uncertain whether this will also be the case for the more diverse state of Colorado.

But the 2008 initiative scorecard totals more victories than failures, and it reflects the same broad political sentiment in the country in favor of progressive change that was expressed in the election of Barack Obama. From coast to coast, voters passed progressive initiatives and referenda addressing everything from drug policy reform to alternative energy. But the biggest winner of the night was health policy: Five states approved important health care measures, from stem cell research and medical marijuana legislation in Michigan to long-term care and assisted suicide in Washington.

"Despite the lack of an overarching national narrative, there were a slew of ballot victories for progressive causes," says Kristina Wilfore, director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. "It was a fairly big victory overall."

Although only 24 states allow for the increasingly popular option of "direct democracy" through ballot initiatives, nearly 70 percent of the U.S. population lives in a state or city that allows citizens to bypass state and national legislatures. These laws are of course subject to reversal by court ruling, but more than 2 out of 3 initiative reforms stick on average, moving the chains forward in front of cautious lawmakers fearful of perceived political ledges and third rails. Based on the economic initiatives that have dominated the last two cycles -- minimum wage and health care -- the ballot initiative appears to be swinging back in the direction intended by the progressives who conceived the idea at the turn of the last century.

"Voters in the early 20th century used (initiatives) to increase spending on public schools and welfare, progressive acts in the face of legislatures dominated by conservative interests," says John Matsusaka, author of For the Many or the Few: The Initiative, Public Policy and American Democracy .

As the number of initiatives and referenda placed on ballots across the country continues to grow, it can be easy to lose track of what was approved and rejected. Below is a brief rundown of some of Tuesday's ballot initiative highlights.

Reproductive Rights

Anti-abortion rights groups had tried to get abortion restrictions placed on the ballot in seven states, but only three made it. All were rejected. Colorado's Amendment 48 would have defined "personhood" as beginning at conception; California's Proposition 4 would have required parental notification for abortions involving minors; and South Dakota's Measure 11 would have established a state legal challenge to most cases of abortion, which proponents had hoped to bring before the Supreme Court to force a revisiting of Roe v. Wade . In Colorado, failure was compounded by damaging intra-movement warfare, with the national board of Right to Life booting the state chapter from the organization for insubordination.

Clean Energy

In California, the T. Boone Pickens-bankrolled Prop. 10 -- aka "The California Renewable Energy and Clean Alternative Fuel Act" -- would have authorized $5 billion in bonds to provide rebates to buyers of natural gas-powered trucks (which, opponents pointed out, would have benefited Pickens' own Clean Energy Fuels Corporation) as well as fund clean energy research and development. But Prop. 10 failed, ceding the green energy spotlight to Missouri, where voters approved Proposition C, requiring Missouri's investor-owned utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources. The success caps a five-year effort on the part of Missourians for Cleaner Cheaper Energy and outside groups like the Sierra Club. The plan had twice been voted down by the state House.
Health Care

If 2006 was the year of minimum-wage initiatives, 2008 was the year of health care. In Michigan, voters approved the repeal of restrictions on stem cell research and approved medical marijuana with 67 percent support. In Missouri, voters approved the creation of a Quality Homecare Council, entrusted to ensure the availability of quality home care services under Medicaid. In Montana, the Healthy Montana Kids Plan passed, expanding coverage to more kids not covered by federal programs. Voters in Washington, meanwhile, passed laws that legalized assisted suicide and raised standards for long-term care workers. In the historic union town of Milwaukee, voters joined the ranks of San Francisco and Washington, D.C., in approving a referendum requiring private employers to provide paid sick leave.

Taxes

As mentioned above, proposals to drastically reduce income and corporate taxes were shot down in Massachusetts, Oregon and North Dakota. In all three states, voters were in no mood to help the wealthy at the expense of their already beleaguered state budgets and critical social services.

Affirmative Action

Of the two attempts to outlaw affirmative action, Colorado's remains as of this writing still too close to call. Nebraska passed its own ban handily, with 58 percent support.

Labor

In Colorado, voters rejected a "right-to-work" measure that sought to ban mandatory union dues and another that would have banned state employee unions from using payroll deductions.

Drug Policy Reform

George Soros has lowered his profile in politics since 2004, but he hasn't gone away. Among the causes and candidates he showered with his largesse was this year's Question 2 in Massachusetts, which passed with 65 percent support, making the Bay State the 13th state in the country to decriminalize personal possession of marijuana. Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana now carries a civil fine of $100. Unfortunately, this victory in drug law reform was not matched by success in California, where Prop. 5, a measure that would have greatly expanded drug rehab programs for nonviolent offenders, failed by 40 percent to 60 percent.

Animal Rights

Californians passed the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which declared it cruel and inhumane to confine animals to cages so small they can't turn around or stretch their limbs. Massachusetts voters, meanwhile, banned dog racing.

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist.

 
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