Voters in deeply red states elected some deeply conservative politicians in this week’s midterm elections. But they also approved a litany of progressive ballot initiatives, from restoring felon voting rights to raising the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid.
The electoral dissonance underscored that the issues people vote on at the ballot box don’t always align with the candidates they vote for. The outcomes also highlight the approach advocates took in trying to get the ballot measures passed — namely, by not associating them with either party.
“Americans are far more generous than our politics suggest,” said Jonathan Schleifer, executive director of the Fairness Project, a three-year-old nonprofit organization that has used ballot measures to circumvent deadlocks in legislative and executive branches of government. The group backed several minimum-wage and Medicaid-expansion measures that passed Tuesday.
“When we take partisan labels off of ideas,” Schleifer said, “Americans want everyone to make a living wage and be able to go to the doctor when they got sick. Ballot initiatives shows there’s an agenda that can bring people together across party lines.”
Case in point: Florida, where voters kept the governor’s mansion in Republican hands and appeared likely to boot Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson from office but also decided to amend the state constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of felons after they pay their debt to society.
Passage of the constitutional amendment will extend voting rights to more than 1 million felons disenfranchised as a result of their criminal convictions. The Sunshine State’s lifetime felon voting ban was the most restrictive in the nation, and Florida had the largest population of former convicts barred from the voting booth. In an instant, they have become a constituency roughly a 10th the size of the voting population.
Faiz Shakir, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that the organization spent about $5.5 million to boost the amendment, first to help get it on the ballot and then with the campaign to pass it. That effort started with making sure conservatives could get behind what had begun as a liberal cause.
“We worked to get conservatives on board early,” Shakir said, including groups such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “And that outreach paid off.”
The ACLU also worked behind the scenes to prevent the campaign from being associated with one party or one candidate. It successfully appealed to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), among other national political figures, not to weigh in on the measure while campaigning in Florida.
“The message was, we’d appreciate it if they didn’t comment or take a hard stand,” Shakir said. “We were looking at a hyper-tribal, partisan environment; if this were tied to a candidate or a party, I didn’t think it would succeed.”
Meanwhile, voters propelled the biggest expansion of Medicaid in heavily Republican states since the early years of the Affordable Care Act, with hundreds of thousands of poor and vulnerable residents standing to gain health coverage as a result of Tuesday’s elections.
Voters in Idaho, Nebraska and Utah approved ballot initiatives to include in their Medicaid programs adults with incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line. The results accomplish a broadening of the safety-net insurance that the states’ legislatures had balked at for years.
In Maine, voters elected Democrat Janet Mills as governor, clearing the path for a Medicaid expansion that voters approved by referendum a year ago. The outgoing GOP governor, Paul LePage, has been an ardent foe of the expansion and had blocked it for a year, leading to a court battle.
Democrats generally have supported Medicaid expansion while Republicans have opposed it, in some cases vociferously, using it as a symbol of their opposition to President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law.
But Republican opposition has softened over time, especially as polls have made clear the expansion is popular among voters. In Idaho, outgoing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) even endorsed the proposition late last month, arguing that the measure would extend health care to 62,000 people, garner $400 million in federal tax money and stabilize financially struggling rural hospitals.
Medicare expansion campaigners led with stories of people who could benefit from access to health care — and suggested that expanding Medicaid could save states money. In Utah, campaigners emphasized that taxpayers were sending money to Washington and that other states were reaping the benefits.
“Prop 3 brings home $800 million a year from Washington, D.C., and slows the rising costs of health care,” said Ray Ward, a Republican legislator and doctor featured on some of Utah Decides’s direct mail. “Prop 3 is good news for Utah taxpayers.”
In two other Republican-led states, voters supported measures to raise the minimum wage, a test of the popularity of the proposal among GOP voters whose leaders have traditionally opposed the hikes as bad for business.
Arkansas voted to increase the state’s current minimum wage of $8.50 an hour to $11 by Jan. 1, 2021 — a rapid escalation in one of the nation’s poorest states that will result in a quarter of the state’s workers getting a raise.
“People call Arkansas conservative, but it’s more populist. People here are socially conservative, but not necessarily free market. The big support for Trump is an indication of that,” said Jeremy Horpedahl, an assistant professor of economics at the University of Central Arkansas.
Missouri voters approved a gradual increase of the state’s $7.85 an hour minimum wage to $12 an hour over the next five years, which is expected to result in more than 675,000 workers getting a raise.
The wins are likely to embolden progressive activists to try to get minimum-wage increases on the ballot in 2020 in other conservative states in the South and Midwest.
Elsewhere, a law that allowed Louisiana juries to convict someone of a felony without a unanimous verdict will end, thanks to a new state amendment passed Tuesday.
Amendment 2 will require unanimous verdicts for felony convictions in all crimes that take place after 2018. Before the new legislation, Louisiana and Oregon were the only states that allowed juries to send people to prison without a unanimous verdict.
“You have fundamentally changed criminal justice in Louisiana,” state Sen. J.P. Morrell, a New Orleans Democrat who sponsored the legislation, told supporters of the measures during a victory party Tuesday, according to Nola.com. He added, “You, now, ladies and gentlemen, have ended 138 years of Jim Crow.”
Still, progressive ballot measures didn’t succeed across the board.
Voters in Arizona, one of the nation’s most sun-soaked states, handily shot down a measure that would have ramped up its shift toward generating electricity from renewables, particularly solar. Residents in oil- and gas-rich Colorado defeated a measure that would have required much larger setbacks for drilling sites on nonfederal land.
Even in the solidly blue state of Washington, incomplete results looked grim for perhaps the most consequential climate-related ballot measure in the country this fall: a statewide initiative that would have imposed a first-in-the-nation fee on emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent of the greenhouse gases that drive global warming.
In each of those states, opponents in the energy industry poured millions of dollars into opposing the measures, arguing that they would increase electric bills, cost jobs and harm the economy.
Richard Newell, president of the nonpartisan think tank Resources for the Future drew a different conclusion. “The complexities and politics of the clean energy transition are best navigated through a legislative process, which has been the basis for virtually all significant state level climate and renewable energy policy,” he said in an email.
Schleifer, of the Fairness Project, said his group plans to keep pushing ballot initiatives such as Medicaid expansion and a higher minimum wage in other parts of the country going forward, no matter their political leanings.
“People in other states are watching what’s happening,” he said. “I think we’re going to see a lot more of this activity in 2020.”
Cleve R. Wootson Jr., Amy Goldstein, Dino Grandoni, Heather Long, Rosalind S. Helderman and Michael Brice-Saddler contributed to this report.