In US general elections a great deal of attention, and much of the money, focuses on events at the national level. But a very great deal of electoral activity also occurs at the sub-national level, with elections for statehouses, governorships, and also initiatives and referendums. In the November 2016 election voters in 35 states were given the opportunity to vote on 154 statewide ballot measures. Roughly $600 million was spent on these campaigns – about half of that in California. This was not an exceptionally busy year. If anything, total numbers of ballot (referendums and initiatives combined) were down by roughly 50 from their turn of the century heights.
As is usually the case, analysts try to identify patterns and trends among the topics on the ballot in a given year. Two points, however, would seem to hold no matter what the year. First, while citizen initiated ballot proposals often attract a great deal of scholarly and media attention (think California’s Proposition 13) fully half – 75 – of these ballot measures were referendum measures put on the ballot by legislators themselves. Many of the latter are bond issues but others have substantive policy goals. In 2016, Alabama’s legislature put on the ballot an anti-union “right to work” measure (Measure 8), legislators in Indiana and Kansas put on the ballot a measure to amended their state constitutions to guarantee the right to hunt and fish, and Missouri’s legislature put on the ballot a photo ID measure (Amendment 6).
Second, as the referendum examples show, each election cycle sees a wide variety of issues being voted on across the US. Multiple proposals on the same or similar topic are often used to identify trends. This year, saw nine ballot propositions that extend the legal use of marijuana, eight of which passed (AR, CA, FL, ME, MA, MT, NV, ND) and one of which failed (AZ). Four proposals increased the minimum wage (AZ, CO, ME, WA) and one proposal – South Dakota’s referred law 20 that sought to lower the minimum wage – was defeated. Three proposals to toughen the regulation of guns and ammunition (CA, ME, WA) passed and a further one failed (NV). Several states saw tax increases: four on cigarettes (CA, CO, MO, ND) and several others increasing corporate or income taxes (CA, LA, ME, OR).
At first blush these proposals can be interpreted as a liberal or ‘blue’ trend that ran counter to the national trend that saw the GOP gain or solidify control of the Presidency, Congress, the Senate, 32 state legislatures, and 33 governorships.
There are, however, two points to bear in mind. First, these more liberal proposals largely won in coastal states. The US political map is red (Republican) in much of the interior but blue (Democratic) on the coasts. In part this also reflects the geography of the initiative process which is predominantly Western, and especially used on the Pacific Coast states, states which voted Democratic in the last several presidential elections.
A second point underscores the difficulty of finding trends and patterns when it comes to the policy output of direct democracy. On the one hand, yes, these liberal policy victories do show how voter-initiated measures can put in place specific policies that run against national tides. The examples of marijuana, gun control, and the minimum wage highlight how consequential direct democracy may be in policy terms. Furthermore, because many of these proposals cover multiple states, and also because one of those states is California, then millions of people are affected by these laws. Over 80 million people are affected by the initiated laws on marijuana, over 50 million by citizen-initiated laws on gun control.
On the other hand, however, ballot proposition elections also point up the nuances of public opinion. California’s ballot helps to illustrate this point. In November 2016, Californians had a choice over 17 statewide measures. While this number raised concerns about too many proposals being on the ballot it was not an all-time high number. In November of 1990 there were 28 measures on the California ballot. Among measures on the 2016 ballot, voters did approve the liberal ones noted above and several others, including one upholding a ban on plastic grocery bags (Proposition 67), passed $9 billion in bonds for education, and voted down a measure that would have made bond financing of infrastructure projects harder in future. So far so liberal. But Californians also rejected an attempt to ban the death penalty and in fact passed a measure (Proposition 66) that would limit appeals in death penalty cases.
Alongside the liberal measures, then, we also see conservative ones succeeding at the polls, even within the same state at the same election. That kind of mixing of liberal and conservative measures, as well as the wide range of topics means that when thinking of ballot propositions, finding patterns is something of a Rorschach test in that a great deal of the patterns lies in the eye of the beholder. In that sense this election cycle had some similarities to past cycles in providing a mix of issues that help underscore the importance of ballot proposition elections.
Featured image credit: I Voted sticker from 2016 election by Dwight Burdette. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.