As millions of Floridians went to the polls Tuesday to elect new state and federal officials, they also considered another issue that could dramatically shape future elections there: Florida voters decided to amend the state constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of felons after they complete their sentences.
The proposal was one of a bevy of policy initiatives on ballots Tuesday, giving voters across the country direct control over issues as varied as health care, the minimum wage, drug policy and, in California, time itself.
Passage of the constitutional amendment in Florida will extend voting rights to as many as 1.6 million felons disenfranchised as a result of their criminal convictions. The flood of new voters could disrupt a balance between the two parties in future elections in a state that has traditionally had some of the closest outcomes in the country. The result came on the same night that Democrats and Republicans were again locked in exceptionally tight battles for a Senate seat and the governor’s mansion.
Proposed constitutional amendments in Florida require the approval of at least 60 percent of voters for passage, a bar that voters cleared Tuesday night.
Florida had been one of just four states to permanently prohibit felons from voting. Under previous law, felons had to apply to the governor for clemency on an individual basis — just 3,000 people had successfully navigated the process and had their rights restored in the past eight years.
The proposal was supported by a diverse array of interest groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Catholic bishops and a political action committee connected to the conservative Koch brothers. Singer John Legend also was a supporter.
The initiative, which would exclude people convicted of murder or sexual offenses, had also become an issue in Florida’s hotly contested gubernatorial race. The Democratic nominee, Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, endorsed its passage; Republican Ron DeSantis, a former congressman, opposed it.
“If you have done your time and you’ve paid your debt to society, you ought to be able to reenter society and have your constitutional right to vote and to work here in this state,” Gillum said during a recent debate.
DeSantis countered: “I want people to be redeemed. But you’ve got to prove that you’re getting back with the law.”
Elsewhere, voters in three reliably Republican-leaning states — Idaho, Nebraska and Utah — were considering ballot initiatives to expand Medicaid under the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare. Voters in a fourth state, Montana, were weighing whether to extend a Medicaid expansion that was adopted in 2015 and would otherwise expire next year.
Obamacare was designed to expand the low-income health-care program automatically, with much of the cost borne by the federal government. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states should be allowed to decide for themselves whether to expand it.
Since the ruling, 33 states and the District of Columbia have expanded coverage to those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty line and struggled to purchase insurance. Democrats generally have supported the expansion while Republicans have opposed it, in some cases vociferously, using it as a symbol of their opposition to the Democrats’ signature health-care law.
But Republican opposition to the expansion has softened, particularly as polls have showed the expansion to be popular with voters, making the outcome of the ballot initiatives in the three heavily Republican states particularly interesting. In each of the states, voters were given the opportunity to overturn the actions of state legislatures, which have previously rejected expansion.
In Idaho, outgoing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter (R) endorsed the proposition late last month, arguing that the measure would extend health care to 62,000 people, snare $400 million in federal tax money and stabilize financially struggling rural hospitals. The proposal was running ahead in early returns in all three states, with a particularly strong showing in Idaho.
Elsewhere, voters considered a variety of other issues.
In two Republican-led states, voters considered whether 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.
In Arkansas, voters considered whether to gradually raise the state’s minimum wage from $8.50 an hour to $11 an hour by 2021. And in Missouri, voters weighed whether to raise the $7.85 minimum to $12 an hour by 2023. Both measures appeared to pass.
Voters in four states faced measures that would loosen laws that govern the usage of marijuana, part of a national shift toward decriminalization of pot. The ballot measures in Michigan and North Dakota would legalize the recreational use of the drug. Early returns showed that the proposal appeared likely to win approval in Michigan but was running significantly behind in North Dakota. In Missouri and Utah, voters considered whether to allow marijuana’s use for medicinal purposes. Early returns showed the proposal trailing in Missouri but likely to prevail in Utah.
Washington state voters on Tuesday considered adopting the nation’s most aggressive effort to combat climate change, a carbon tax that would impose a $15-per-ton fee on some emissions, automatically rising over time.
Supporters said the tax was a way to discourage the use of energy sources that are leading to the planet’s rising temperatures. Opponents argued that the tax would hurt businesses and low-income residents. With nearly two-thirds of the state’s vote counted, the measure appeared likely headed to defeat.
In California, which has a long tradition of putting major policy decisions to popular vote on the ballot, voters considered 11 separate measures.
One proposal would repeal a 12-cent-a-gallon gas tax that was adopted by the legislature last year to raise money to improve state roads. Another proposal would allow cities and counties to enforce rent control on more buildings, part of an effort to control runaway housing costs.
A third measure could affect how Californians tell time. In the sunshine-loving state, the measure would start a process that could result in California adopting daylight saving time all year. The system would mean that clocks would not change in California when the rest of the country changed time in the fall and spring. If the measure passes, the legislature will still need to approve it by a two-thirds vote and federal law will need to be changed.
This article has been updated.