Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Drew Angerer/Getty Images, Bytmonas/Getty Images, Jim Young/Reuters, and Jewel Samad/Getty Images.
Imagine, after a 16-month campaign free of substantive policy discussion, that you could just choose the laws for yourself with a handy Election Day checklist.
That’s exactly what voters in some states—notably California, Alabama, Colorado, Maine, Washington, and South Dakota—will find when they arrive at the polls on Tuesday. There are 162 plebiscites on statewide ballots this Tuesday, including both citizen-drafted initiatives and referenda on existing laws. The total is in line with trends over the past 25 years but represents a huge departure from the post-war era of American politics.
The recent spate of up-or-down measures, which began with the tax revolt of the 1970s, can either circumvent special interests in the legislature or sneak their priorities past elected officials. Left- or right-wing, they reflect distrust and dissatisfaction with representative government. They are also on the rise in Europe.
Some of the great reforms in American history have begun with ballot initiatives, including women’s suffrage, the abolition of the poll tax, and the eight-hour workday. But there are drawbacks to direct democracy. The text of the propositions can be confusing or misleading. Tuesday’s Pennsylvania amendment to extend the retirement age of judges from 70 to 75 is written in such a way that suggests it represents the imposition, rather than the extension, of the retirement age. Voters may not be informed about what they will be voting on, or about what its consequences are. Some scholars believe plebiscites leave minorities at a structural disadvantage. Finally, some states—ahem, California—simply have too many things on the ballot. It’s a lot to expect voters to come in with informed opinions on more than a dozen complex regulatory proposals.
Still, in 2016 there’s something unusually appealing about the idea. In Maine, voters will decide whether to make their state the first to use ranked-choice voting to pick candidates for federal and state office. District of Columbia residents will vote on sending a D.C. statehood proposal to Congress (where it is all-but-assuredly doomed) for the first time in more than two decades.
More broadly, four big themes emerge. Nine states will vote on liberalizing marijuana laws. Four states will vote on raising the minimum wage. Four states will vote on stricter gun control. Dozens of cities and counties will vote on hundreds of billions of dollars in subway, rail, and highway projects. Here’s what’s at stake for voters in those places, and America writ large.
Maine, Washington, Colorado, and Arizona will vote on minimum wage increases on Tuesday. Washington voters could send the minimum wage up to $13.50 by 2020; Maine, Colorado, and Arizona to $12 by 2020. (Also, South Dakota will vote on whether to reject a legislative statute that reduces the minimum wage for workers younger than 18 from $8.50 to $7.50 an hour. Those workers can’t vote, of course.)
The most important of those is Arizona’s Proposition 206, which in addition to raising wages would give Arizona workers a right to paid sick days. Both types of projects have been discussed on the local level and fought by the Republican-dominated state Legislature. In May, for example, Gov. Doug Ducey signed a law forbidding the state’s cities from enacting paid sick leave laws—though none had yet tried to do so.
Taking the issues directly to voters is a way Arizona progressives can work around the state Legislature’s unprecedented opposition to local initiatives. If the measure passes, the left can savor some sweet desert irony: By blocking reform at the local level, Ducey and his GOP colleagues have galvanized support for a minimum wage increase for the whole state. Raise a glass to the uniform regulatory environment!
Maine, Washington, Nevada, and California will have some variation on background checks for purchasing firearms on the ballot. All are expected to pass. Gerrymandered state legislatures in thrall to the National Rifle Association have largely quashed local gun laws, so expect to see more “common sense” gun laws, as the saying goes, put to voters in the years ahead—especially in moderate states with red statehouses.
If you live in a place where pot is legal or decriminalized, it can be easy to forget that in much of the country, possession remains a felony that can land you in prison.
Aside from taxation issues, the No. 1 state-level ballot initiative in the country by category is marijuana: 82 million Americans in nine states could loosen marijuana laws on Tuesday. Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada have proposed full legalization. Arkansas, Florida, Montana, and North Dakota have medical marijuana on the ballot.
If California and Massachusetts legalize pot, and it looks like they will, the American market for legal weed will expand dramatically.
There will be almost four dozen transit initiatives on the ballot this Tuesday, including massive, region-altering proposals in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Seattle. Atlanta, Raleigh, San Francisco, and Indianapolis have put somewhat smaller initiatives up for a vote.
City planning by referendum has its drawbacks: Money gets pulled from regressive sources likes sales taxes, and routes are designed for popular approval but don’t necessarily represent the best options. But politicians have come to see ballot measures as the best way to gain an overwhelming mandate for transit projects, a frequent target of small-government conservatives.
Transit ballot measures have attained a 71 percent success rate over the past 15 years. Cities, in particular, want transit to help foster downtown development, link residents to jobs, and manage population growth without putting more cars on the road. Federal transit funding levels remains meager, and cities and counties have increasingly sought to make up the gap. Sales taxes are the largest source of funding for capital spending on transit funding in the U.S., after federal funds.
The proposals to watch include Measure M in Los Angeles County, which would contribute $120 billion to highway and transit projects over the next 40 years, including significant expansions to the county’s subway and light rail network. In Seattle, ST3 is a $54 billion initiative to build 62 miles of light rail, doubling transit ridership to 800,000 daily trips by 2040. In the four-county Detroit region, a $4.6 billion plan would finally unite Detroit and its suburbs on rapid bus routes, with a commuter rail connecting downtown with Ann Arbor.
What all these plans have in common: big support from big business, which perceives a functioning transit system as a key asset in inter-city competition.
California is the cradle of the recent surge in ballot lawmaking, but the child has now grown up and won’t turn that damn music down.
There is such a thing in California as an “initiative industrial complex,” an array of firms that handle signature collecting, legal advice, consulting, and fundraising for issues near and dear to special interests. The proposals do not necessarily reflect popular support. But the format does allow a small number of ill-informed voters to try to decipher confusing wording about important issues in a matter of seconds.
The state has a whopping 18 plebiscites up this Tuesday (more than any other state), and that doesn’t include what local voters might have to adjudicate at the county or city level. The proposals are serious and substantive: They include abolishing the death penalty, floating a $9 billion school bond issue, and legalizing marijuana. Voters will consider a cap on the price the state pays for prescription drugs (for prisoners and some public health-care programs), which would be a high-profile blow to the pharmaceutical industry but might have unintended consequences. Bernie Sanders will headline a rally in Sacramento on Monday to support the measure.
Three other issues stand out. Since California banned plastic bags two years ago, the plastics lobby has been busily raising money for a sham grassroots initiative to overturn the ban by referendum (the “no” campaign is led by “the American Progressive Bag Alliance,” which is not what you think it is). If the ballot measure passes, California cuts off a huge chunk of the American market from plastic bag–makers, and would become an example for other states. If it fails, it would mark a serious setback to the environmental movement against plastic bags.
Second, Californians will vote to repeal a 1998 ballot measure that prohibited languages besides English from being used in public schools. Proposition 58 would still require schools to make kids proficient in English but would also authorize districts to establish dual-language immersion programs for both native and non-native speakers. It would make the state a laboratory in bilingual education.
Finally, behind the “Only in California” door is a bill that would require adult film stars to wear condoms. The porn industry says it’s a job-killer, and high-profile actors say it’s both impractical—and a violation of their rights.
For more about Tuesday’s acts of direct democracy, visit Ballotpedia, which is a terrific resource.