On November 4th, Democrats lost big when they ran a candidate but won big when they ran an issue.
In 42 states about 150 initiatives were on the ballot. While the majority of them did not address issues dividing the two parties (e.g. raising the mandatory retirement age for judges, salary increases for state legislators, bond issues supporting a range of projects), scores of initiatives did let voters weigh in on hot button issues. And on these American voters proved astonishingly liberal.
Voters approved every initiative to legalize or significantly reduce the penalties for marijuana possession (Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Washington, D.C.) It is true that a Florida measure to legalize medical marijuana lost, but 57 percent of people voted in favor (60 percent was required for approval.)
Voters approved every initiative to raise the minimum wage (Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Dakota). Voters in San Francisco and Oakland approved initiatives to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2018. The good citizens of Oakland and Massachusetts overwhelmingly approved more generous paid sick leave.
Both Colorado and North Dakota voters rejected abortion-related measures that would have deemed fertilized eggs as persons under their state criminal codes.
Washington state voters approved background checks for all gun sales and transfers, including private transactions.
By a wide margin Missourians rejected a constitutional amendment to require teachers to be evaluated based on test results, which would mean that they could be fired or demoted virtually at will.
By a 59-41 margin North Dakotans voted to keep their unique statute outlawing absentee owned pharmacies, despite Walmart outspending independent pharmacist supporters at least ten to one in the campaign.
The results from Colorado offer a good example of the disparity between how people vote on candidates and how we vote on issues. A few years ago the Colorado legislature stripped cities and counties of the right to build their own telecommunications networks, but it allowed them to reclaim that authority if they put it to a vote of their citizens. On Tuesday 8 cities and counties did just that. Residents in every community voted by a very wide margin to permit government owned telecommunications networks even while they were voting by an equally wide margin for Republican candidates who vigorously oppose government ownership of anything.
Republicans did gain a number of important victories in state referendums. Most of these dealt with taxes. For example, Georgia voters by a wide margin supported a constitutional amendment prohibiting the state legislature from raising the maximum state income tax rate. Massachusetts’ voters narrowly voted to overturn a law indexing the state gasoline tax to the consumer price increase.
What did Tuesday tell us?
When given the choice between a Republican and a Democrat candidate the majority of voters chose the Republican. When given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat position on an issue they chose the Democrat position. I’ll leave it up to others to debate the reasons behind this apparent contradiction. My own opinion is that ballot initiatives more accurately take the ideological pulse of the people because debates over issues must focus on issues, not personality, temperament or looks. Those on both sides of the issue can exaggerate, distort and just plain lie but they must do so in reference to the question on the ballot. No ballot initiative ever lost because one of its main backers attended a strip club 16 years earlier.