Major Progressive Victories (and Some Defeats) in Ballot Measures Across the Country

Election '16

There was more at stake Tuesday than who will sit in the White House. Voters in 37 states with ballot initiatives and legislative referenda voted on 174 different proposals that ranged from overturning anti-union laws passed by Republican legislatures, to tax measures to fund schools, to legalizing marijuana for medical or recreational use, to upholding gay marriage, to ending the death penalty and labeling food with genetically modified ingredients.

Here's a rundown on the hottest topics on the state political frontlines.

1. Taxes

There are more tax questions on Tuesday’s state ballots than any other topic—31 in all. On the progressive side are revenue-raising measures to see if voters have had enough with years of budget cuts to schools and other needed state services. On the other side of the political spectrum are measures making it harder to raise taxes for public services.

California lead the way with two of the most controversial measures. Proposition 30, sponsored by Gov. Jerry Brown, would raise income taxes for earnings above $250,000 and the state sales tax by 0.25 percent for several years, to prevent further cuts to schools and other state services. With 64 percent of precincts reporting, the measure was slightly ahead, with 52.2 percent of voters backing it. If Brown’s measure passes, it would be a tremendous victory in a state that had faced legislative gridlock on tax issues.

The second California tax proposition, Proposition 38, sponsored by a wealthy lawyer who teamed up with education advocates, was soundly defeated. It would have raised income taxes to fund public schools.

In Arizona, voters defeated Prop. 204, which would have extended a 1 percent sales tax dedicated to public schools. In South Dakota, Initiated Measure 15, which splits a penny sales tax between schools and health care for the poor, appeared headed for defeat. Meanwhile, a Missouri measure raising tobacco taxes for health education had a very slim lead with less than two-thirds of precincts reporting, although local newspapers ran headlines saying it was headed for defeat.

On the other side of the political spectrum, anti-tax measures imposing severe revenue-raising restraints faced mixed results. In Washington, local news reports say voters passed I-1185, requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature to raise taxes. Anti-tax conservatives backed that measure. In Michigan, however, voters rejected a super-majority requiring a two-thirds vote of the legislature or voters to raise taxes.

In Illinois, voters also rejected a proposal requiring a two-thirds legislative majority to increase pension benefits for public employees. That was seen as both a labor victory and defeat for fiscal conservatives.

2. Labor Unions

Like the Illinois pension proposal, there are other anti-union measures on state ballots. Most significant was California’s Proposition 32, which resurrected a proposal defeated in 1998 and 2005 that prohibited union dues from being used for political purposes without an individual member’s approval. It also would ban government contractors from donating to campaigns. It was headed for defeat, with only 45 percent of voters backing it, based on 64 percent of precincts reporting.

On the side of restoring union rights, Idaho teachers put three measures on the fall ballot: one to repeal a law limiting previously negotiated union contracts; another to repeal a new law tying teacher pay to student test scores; and a third that would repeal a law changing school funding formulas and requiring schools to provide computers and online courses. Based on incomplete returns, it appears that the trio was headed toward a big victory for teachers and public employee unions.

South Dakotans also repealed a new law that rates teachers and removed tenure, another anti-education bill passed by a GOP-majority legislatures after 2010 that punishes teachers while doing little to improve public schools. In Michigan, in contrast, voters dealt unions a major defeat by rejecting a measure to restore collective bargaining rights for all unionized employees, whether state or private sector employees.   

3. Democracy Issues

There are a range of democracy issues, starting in Michigan where voters appear to have narrowly repealed emergency powers legislation that the state’s GOP-controlled legislature passed enabling it to allow local governments—such as the city of Detroit—to revoke and rewrite existing contracts, including wages and benefits. The vote is a defeat for the state’s GOP, which has delighted in taking over Democratic-run cities and revising wage, benefit and pension contracts, canceling projects and other contracted obligations. The law had been called blatantly illegal under different provisions of the Michigan and U.S. constitutions.

On the campaign finance reform front, Colorado and Montana asked voters different questions related to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that deregulated spending and led to 2012’s million-dollar donors and political ad wars. Colorado’s Amendment 65, passed by 72 percent of Colorado voters, tells legislators to send a message to Congress instructing it to draft a constitutional amendment that would allow it to again regulate campaign cash. Montana’s I-166 had 76 percent support based on preliminary returns. It declares that corporations do not have constitutional rights and is a response to federal court rulings that have overturned longstanding state campaign finance laws.

4. Marriage Equality

The marriage equality movement won some important victories on Tuesday. Same-sex marriage has been on state ballots for nearly a decade but not in a positive way. Thirty out of 31 state ballot measures have banned gay marriage, including in California. In contrast, same-sex marriage victories consistently have come from the courts or legislatures—not voters. On Tuesday that changed.

In Maine, voters approved Question 1 legalized same-sex marriage, 54 percent to 46 percent, with 48 percent of precincts reporting. That makes Maine the first state in the nation where voters approved gay marriage. In Maryland, voters backed Question 6 by 58 percent to 42 percent, with 84 percent of precincts reporting. The Maryland vote legalized same-sex marriage by repealing prior laws banning it.

In Washington, opponents of marriage equality opponents are asking voters to approve or repeal a new law that legalized gay marriage. With 50 percent of precincts reporting, 55.4 percent of voters supported the proposal. If that passed, it would be the third state to vote to support marriage equality.  

In Minnesota, however, voters appear to be narrowly rejecting a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage by a 2 percent margin, according to local news reports that said the vote was too close to call.

5. Marijuana

Marijuana legalization took a big step forward in four states on Tuesday.

In Massachusetts, voters approved Question 3, allowing medical marijuana use with 63 percent supporting it, with 86 percent of precincts reporting. In Colorado, Amendment 64 was ahead 53 percent to 47 percent, legalizing it for recreational use, with 40 percent of precincts reporting. In Washington, I-502, legalizing cultivation, distribution and possession, was backed by 55 percent of voters with 51 percent of precincts reporting. In Montana, voters appeared to be backing IR-124, which would reverse recent legislation that rolled back the state’s 2004 medical marijuana law. With one-third of precincts reporting, 57 percent of voters supported it.

In Oregon, Measure 80, allowing cultivation and sale through state-licensed stores, appeared headed to defeat with only 45 percent of voters supporting it, based on 56 percent of precincts reporting. And in Arkansas, with 91 percent of precincts reporting, Issue 5, allow medical use—the first time the issue has come up in the South, was slightly trailing with 48.4 percent of voters backing it.

6. Obamacare

The law that red state Republicans love to hate—the Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare—saw more states with sizeable populations of uninsured residents thumbing their noses at federal efforts to provide health care. After the Affordable Care Act became law, four states passed ballot measures saying no individual or business would be forced to participate in a healthcare system (Arizona, Missouri, Ohio and Oklahoma). Colorado’s voters rejected a similar statement. On Tuesday, more states said no.

Alabama appeared to reject Obamacare, voting 65 percent to 35 percent, with three-quarters of precincts reporting. Montana also appeared to be rejecting Obamacare by the same big margins, by prohibiting the federal government from imposing a tax penalty on people who did not have an insurance plan. Missouri voters passed Proposition E, which bans their governor and executive branch from creating state health insurance exchanges—the part of Obamacare where individuals can buy into a group policy. Wyoming voters also strongly supported a measure giving state residents and its Legislature power to make their health care decisions, another snub of Obamacare.

However, in Florida, voters had more sense and rejected a GOP-backed proposal against Obamacare by 52 percent to 48 percent. Many of these voters are seen as symbolic, because health officials in most states—including red states—have been quietly planning to implement the law, according to news reports, particularly after the Supreme Court upheld the law this past June. That is because they see the very sizeable federal subsidies in the program’s start-up years.

7. Undocumented Immigrants

Anti-immigrant sentiments are behind two measures on opposite sides of the country. In Maryland, conservatives backed Question 4, which would repeal 2011 legislation that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state universities, if they attended high school in Maryland and their parents paid taxes. Maryland voters appear to have rejected that measure with 51.5 percent voting no, with 85 percent of precincts reporting. This is a narrow victory, but victory nonetheless, for immigration rights.

In Montana, voters appear to strongly back LR-121, a legislature-sponsored measure that would deny state services to undocumented immigrants. With one-third of precincts reports, it was backed by 79 percent of voters. That regressive measure requires individuals who apply for state welfare benefits or student loans at state universities to present proof of citizenship.

8. Affirmative Action

Local television stations report that Oklahoma voters have passed State Question 759, put on the ballot by legislators, prohibiting any discrimination or preferable treatment on the basis of race, sex, ethnicity and national origin. It is designed to undermine state affirmative action programs and is part of a trend that can be seen in other South-Central states, such as Texas and Kansas, which have passed tougher voter ID laws in response to growing minority populations. The common thread in all these steps is trying to preserve the white governing class’ power.

9. Criminal Justice

California’s Proposition 34 abolishing capital punishment and commuting death sentences to life without parole was defeated. However, in a major victory for prison reform, more than two-thirds of Californians supported Proposition 36, changing California’s infamous “three strikes” law that imposes a life prison sentence for people convicted of three felonies. It requires the third felony be a serious or violent offense—not a minor drug related crime. It will save millions that can be used for other public programs.   

10. Assisted Suicide

Massachusetts’ voters appear to have narrowly rejected Question 2, an initiative that would allow a terminally ill person to be given a lethal injection. With 86 percent of precincts reporting, 50.6 voted no.

To date, there have been five state votes on "death with dignity" questions. Washington first rejected it in 1991 but approved it in 2008. California and Michigan voters rejected it in the 1990s. But Oregon passed it in 1994.

11. Food Labeling

California’s Proposition 37 requiring that food labels disclose if any ingredients come from genetically altered products appeared to be headed to defeat. With 64 percent of precincts reporting, only 45 percent of voters supported it. The proponents were outspent six-to-one by a coalition of the nation’s largest corporate chemical and food manufacturers. The measure sought to make food labeling a national issue.  

12. Anti-Abortion Amendments

Reproductive rights saw an urban state victory and rural state defeat on Tuesday.

In Florida, voters defeated Amendment 6 by 55 percent to 45 percent, which said “that public funds may not be expended for any abortion or for health-benefits coverage that includes coverage of abortion.” The vote is a big victory for reproductive rights, as 600,000 more Floridians took a pro-choice stance. 

In Montana, however, repreductive rights appeared headed for a defeat with what appears to be the passage of a ballot measure requiring parental notification of minors seeking an abortion. With one-third of precincts reporting, 69 percent of voters favored parental notification. 

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