Ballot initiatives are trending progressive

Posted on November 30, 2022

Progressive ballot measures did quite well in 2022. In contrast, before the last decade or so, conservatives largely dominated ballot measures, using them to energize their base with an anti-tax, anti-labor and anti-LGBT agenda. How times have changed.

Ballot measures are not new, of course. State constitutional amendments have usually required public approval and, more than a century ago, the original Progressive Movement promoted ballot initiatives as a device to circumvent entrenched special interests.

By 1978, conservatives saw ballot initiatives as a way to change the political game, and this strategy was jumpstarted by California’s anti-tax Proposition 13. Conservatives followed with hundreds of measures in the 1980s and 90s to enact harsh criminal penalties, impose term limits on state officeholders, deny public funding for abortion, limit taxes, prohibit same-sex marriage, and much more.

Things started to turn around when progressives founded the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) in 1999. BISC encouraged Democrats to use ballot measures for economic and social justice, and to energize the progressive base.

In several states, by around 2010, progressives were proactively taking charge of ballot measures. 2022 is a high point for that strategy. Victories include:

Abortion: Reproductive rights have been on the ballot since shortly after Roe v. Wade, but the infamous 2022 SCOTUS ruling galvanized abortion rights voters as never before. This year, there were six ballot measures addressing abortion, the most ever for a single year. As discussed in our last IdeaLog, abortion rights advocates won all six statewide referenda, in CA, KS, KY, MI, MT and VT.

Medicaid Expansion: Among right-wing rulings of the current Supreme Court, one of the most hurtful to individual Americans was prohibiting the Affordable Care Act from requiring Medicaid expansion in the states. By winning a November 2022 referendum, South Dakota—by a margin of 56-to-44 percent—became the 39th state to adopt the ACA’s Medicaid expansion. Since 2017, seven states have decided by referendum whether to accept Medicaid expansion and all seven have approved it.

Banning Right-to-Work: By a margin of 58-to-42 percent, Illinois adopted a constitutional amendment to prohibit so-called Right-to-Work laws, which are designed to weaken collective bargaining. The last Republican governor had promoted “right-to-work zones” and this constitutional amendment puts a stop to that.

In-state college tuition for “dreamers”: In most states, non-citizen students do not qualify for in-state college tuition. Arizona, despite its prior history of anti-immigrant law enforcement, approved in-state tuition by a margin of 51-to-49 percent.

Limiting Medical Debt: Also in Arizona but by a much greater margin of 72-to-28 percent, voters limited the interest rate that could be charged on debt accrued from receiving healthcare services. According the Kaiser Family Foundation, more than 40 percent of adults have some current medical debt and at least one-in-ten owe more than $250.

Minimum wage: By ballot measure, Nebraska will (gradually) increase its minimum wage from $9 to $15 per hour. The vote was fairly overwhelming for such a Republican state; it won by a margin of 59-to-41 percent. Nebraska becomes the 12th state to adopt a $15 minimum wage. Nevada also approved, by a margin of 55-to-45 percent, a referendum to modestly increase the minimum wage from $11 to $12.

Tipped minimum wage: By a margin of 3-to-1, District of Columbia voters agreed to phase out the “tipped minimum wage” and require that tipped employees be subject to the same minimum as everyone else. DC will join seven states (AK, CA, MN, MT, NV, OR, WA) that have no special lower minimum wage for tipped workers.

Gun safety: By 51-to-49 percent, Oregon adopted a permit-to-purchase system for gun transfers, which provides a more careful review of buyers. The measure also bans ammunition magazines holding more than ten rounds.

Millionaires Tax: By a margin of 52-to-48, Massachusetts voters approved a constitutional amendment to impose a four percent surtax on incomes over $1 million per year.