Ballot measures helped get progressive policies passed this year—but they could come under attack

By Kristin Toussaint

November 18, 2022

A $15 minimum wage in Nebraska; Medicaid expansion in South Dakota; the right to abortion enshrined in the Michigan constitution: These recent wins didn’t come from local politicians, but from ballot measures that voters passed at the polls during the midterm elections.

Ballot measures are an important political tool that allow voters to participate in democracy directly and have a voice without waiting for elected politicians to take action. They also remove the partisan labels from issues like minimum wage and Medicaid. As this year’s midterm results show, even progressive issues tend to be overwhelmingly popular when they’re not tied to one particular party.

With control of Congress now split, a divided Washington means state ballot measures will be an even more important path for political action, says Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, an organization that uses ballot measures to support economic and social justice. But the very act of putting issues on ballots could also come under attack.

Eight Fairness Project-supported campaigns passed in the 2022 midterms, most prominently the $15 minimum wage in Nebraska (the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, and has been since 2009). “That issue is not only important for the 150,000 minimum wage workers in Nebraska who will get a raise, but it’s also important because it really puts to bed this idea that a $15 minimum wage is a Bernie Sanders pipe dream or a priority of blue states or a priority of coastal elites,” Hall says.

The ballot measure, which will raise the hourly minimum wage in the state from the current $9 up to $15 over the next several years, won with more than 58% of the vote. Historically, Hall says, minimum wage ballot measures see strong participation. Arizona had a minimum wage increase on the ballot in 2016, and more people voted on that question than on the presidential candidate.

“I think we see voting yourselves a raise as a really compelling voter turnout motivator whenever it’s on the ballot,” she says. They also often pass: Of the 26 minimum wage ballot measures since 1996, 24 have been approved.

The win isn’t just big for Nebraska, but bodes well for workers across the country. The minimum wage debate has become tinged with partisan rancor, with Vermont Senator Sanders supporting the efforts of Fight for Fifteen and the National Republican Congressional Committee criticizing wage raises. But the ballot question in Nebraska, a conservative state, moved beyond that.

“To see that particular wage still prevail in a red state like Nebraska really does help break that logjam of thinking about what wages need to be in this country,” Hall says. “It’s opening up the narrative anew that $15 is pretty darn reasonable, and it’s more than double what the federal minimum wage is, which is a national embarrassment.”

Federal initiatives may be more difficult to pass, particularly in a contentious Congress. What ballot measures allow, Hall notes, is a “very linear relationship between voting and change.” There’s no gridlock or debate, concerns over which party has the majority, or a conflict of interest, as when lawmakers often receive campaign contributions from businesses; if it’s on the ballot, constituents can simply vote for it directly.

“When you change the form of the conversation from trying to convince lawmakers . . . to having a conversation with voters,” Hall says, “they vote with compassion, they vote for community, and they vote themselves a raise.”

Hall expects to see more ballot measures in the coming years for minimum wage increases and other progressive issues—but she also expects a backlash that could make them more difficult to push forward.

“Conservative lawmakers in red states are seeing the power of ballot measures in their home states and are responding not by trying to win on the issue—whether it’s minimum wage or abortion or Medicaid. They are responding by trying to make it harder to qualify and win future ballot measures,” Hall says.

This midterm cycle, for example, a ballot measure in Arkansas would have revised the rules for future ballot initiatives, requiring a 60% majority, rather than a simple majority, to be approved (it didn’t pass).

“If you don’t think you can win with voters on Election Day, you try to change the rules of the game,” Hall says. “That is definitely happening with ballot measures and is going to be something to really watch in the coming legislative session.”

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