Shawna Green, a waitress at Granny Shaffer's, puts out menus Dec. 18 at the restaurant in Joplin, Mo. (Roger Nomer/The Joplin Globe/AP)

LITTLE ROCK — Nineteen states will raise their minimum wage on New Year’s Day, delivering relief to low-income workers and validating liberal efforts to bypass Congress and state legislatures and push for pro-working-class policies through ballot initiatives.

Twelve states have increased their minimum wages via ballot initiatives in recent years, a focused push that election experts say hasn’t been seen since social conservatives used ballot initiatives aggressively in the early 2000s to define marriage as between a man and woman.

Michigan plans an increase by April, which will bring the total to 20.

With the federal minimum wage stuck at $7.25 an hour since 2009, liberal activists now see ballot initiatives as a key tool to advance their economic agenda.

They are finding that voters, even in red states such as Arkansas, will overwhelmingly check “yes” when progressive policies to help the poor appear on the ballot.

A big progressive push is underway for 2020 to use ballot initiatives to raise state minimum wages even higher — up to $15 — and expand Medicaid health coverage. After the success in midterm elections, liberal organizers say the money, campaign infrastructure and votes are there to make this happen.

“Populist economic measures like higher minimum wages, paid sick days and expanding Medicaid are what voters want,” said Paul K. Sonn, director of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) Action Fund. He’s already working with a group in Florida trying to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15.

Sonn and a dozen other left-leaning activists interviewed for this article say momentum is on their side. Because of ballot initiatives, three states expanded Medicaid in 2018, and two raised their minimum wage. The only loss was a Medicaid expansion vote in Montana, which voters rejected because it would have raised taxes on tobacco.

Progressives began to really push these votes after Barack Obama’s presidential election and seeing many Americans struggling in the Great Recession.

“Prior to 2010, ballot initiatives were primarily a tool of the right to pass conservative issues. But all of a sudden, the left woke up,” said Heidi Gay, co-president of National Ballot Access, which helps ballot initiative campaigns across the political spectrum.

Efforts are underway in North Dakota to get a vote on a $15 minimum wage in 2020 and in Nevada to raise its minimum wage to $14. Activists are eyeing Florida, Missouri, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Mississippi and Wyoming for potential ballot initiatives on Medicaid expansion.

Twenty-four states allow citizens to petition to get an issue on the ballot, according to John Matsusaka, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute at the University of Southern California.

What happened in conservative Arkansas in 2018 illustrates just how well oiled the push has become on minimum wage hikes. The measure for a 75-cent increase in the minimum wage increase received 68 percent of the vote. The whole process took less than a year.


On Jan. 1, 2019, 19 states are raising their minimum wages. Michigan will lift its wage in the early spring. The vast majority of these increases are happening because voters approved the hike at the ballot box.

David Couch, 59 and a seasoned activist and lawyer in Little Rock, said he was inspired by Walmart’s decision to raise its starting wage to $11 an hour across the United States.

Walmart, the nation’s largest employer, is headquartered in Arkansas.

“I said, if Walmart can go to $11, why isn’t the state’s minimum wage $11 an hour?” Couch said in an interview at an office full of peace signs and bumper stickers that say “Spill love, not oil” and “Cool people care.”

Arkansas Republicans refer to Couch as a “nemesis” and “absolute wacko,” while Democrats celebrate him as something akin to a progressive Batman. He sees himself as a grass-roots campaigner who’s giving power back to voters.

“The whole point of ballot initiatives is to pass stuff that’s popular with the people but isn’t getting done,” said Couch. In the past four years, he’s organized successful ballot initiatives to legalize medical marijuana as well as raise the minimum wage.

It took Couch two months to collect more than 67,000 signatures for the 2018 minimum-wage initiative. The Fairness Project, which started in 2015 to provide “venture capital-style" funding for such initiatives, seeded money for polling and signature collection. National Ballot Access helped gather signatures, and NELP provided additional money and expertise.

He honed his strategy at the “Road Ahead” conference, an annual gathering for progressive ballot initiative activists in Las Vegas.

The Sixteen Thirty Fund, which started shortly after Obama’s election to support progressive causes, donated $1.3 million to the campaign. The secretive fund says it has sponsored "over 45 initiatives” but doesn’t disclose its donors and didn’t return repeated requests to comment.

Early polls indicated strong support to move the state’s $8.50 minimum wage to $9.25 in January 2019, $10 in January 2020 and $11 in January 2021, a level that would effectively be the highest in the nation after adjusting for the fact that costs and typical pay in Arkansas are far less than places such as California and New York.

Republicans in Arkansas have tried to block the effort. Leslie Rutledge, the state’s GOP attorney general, initially denied Couch’s petition to get the pay increase on the ballot in 2018 but lost a court challenge. Then the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce sued to knock the wage hike off the ballot, arguing that too many signatures were invalid and that the move would cause job losses and force businesses to close. Again, Couch prevailed.

“David Couch is a thorn in my side. I no longer underestimate him,” said Randy Zook, president of the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce.

About a month before Election Day, Couch had Precision Strategies, which was founded by three top officials from Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, run television and digital ads across the state. He also sent out mailers to occasional voters in lower-income and minority neighborhoods to raise awareness.

On election night, Republicans won every major seat in the Arkansas midterms — governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and all four congressional seats. Couch delivered the one major Democratic win of the evening: the minimum-wage hike. He celebrated in the back room of a low-key brewpub across the street from a tattoo shop.

“If we could replicate David Couch across the country, there would be even more progress,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project.

Couch already has filed the paperwork for a 2020 ballot initiative for an independent redistricting commission in his state, and he’s mulling a Medicaid initiative. And far beyond Arkansas, progressives say the groundwork is set for major gains in 2020, thanks to ballot initiatives.

“The new Democratic House wants to pass a $15 minimum wage bill. If they are met with gridlock from [Republican Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell and Trump, then we will continue to push minimum-wage raise at the state level,” Sonn said.

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