Although this year’s presidential election continues to dominate headlines, many important state decisions were also made on Nov 3. Here’s what you may have missed on this year’s ballot measures.
The left enjoyed a few big wins on the state level, perhaps most notably in Florida. In a move that delighted progressives and confounded pollsters and political elites, voters approved Amendment 2 by 61%, raising the minimum wage to $15 by 2026. It will increase from $8.56 to $10 next year, then $1 per year until it reaches $15. Although the minimum wage would now be $24 if it rose in step with productivity growth as it did prior to 1968, Florida is a huge win for the “Fight for $15” movement, which has seen slow gains since its 2012 inception. Portland, Maine passed a similar bill to secure a $15 minimum wage within three years, in addition to voting in favor of rent control and a local Green New Deal.
Colorado voters narrowly approved Prop 18, which gives workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave funded by a payroll tax split between employers and employees.
But labor also saw major losses on election night. While polling indicates that there is broad bipartisan support for measures such as taxing the wealthy, elite interests have been successful in poisoning support for even the most modest and overdue financial reforms and pushing the most flagrantly sinister advances for Big Money. Illinois, which has a flat tax for all income levels, shot down an amendment introducing a progressive graduated income tax out of fear that it would raise taxes on everyone.
The state of California also confounded political pundits in delivering the most devastating labor loss of the election, and possibly the decade.
Gig economy giants Uber, Lyft, Postmates and Instacart spent a record-breaking $205 million to pass a ballot measure that fundamentally reshapes the economy in their interest. Their absurdly deceitful ad campaign bombarded Californians with pleas to vote yes on Proposition 22 for months on every media platform, including fake progressive voter guides from non-existent organizations: the “Feel the Bern, Progressive Voter Guide,” “Our Voice, Latino Voters Guide” and “Council of Concerned Women Voters Guide” all advocated for Prop 22 and a Biden/Harris ticket in their first and only publications.
Uber and other gig companies have long existed in a precarious legal position over their treatment of workers. Whether those working for gig companies at their ground level count as “employees”—meaning they’re entitled to basic workers’ rights, and the company must pay taxes on them—is a question the U.S. has vacillated on for years. The real project of companies like Uber—which is currently unprofitable, yet valued at $50 billion in “market capitalization,”is to ensure the answer is a resounding no, effectively opening a loophole to workers’ rights and making possible a kind of modern tax-exempt feudalism.
Prop 22 designates gig economy workers as independent contractors rather than employees. Employees are entitled to benefits such as minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, expense reimbursement, paid sick leave and paid family leave. Employers also pay half of employees’ social security tax. Employing someone as an independent contractor exempts employers from having to provide any benefits at all, or the necessary tools for the job, or upward mobility, and from withholding taxes from the amount paid or making matching tax payments. Independent contractors must pay their own “self-employment” taxes as well as income tax on earnings.
The War on Drugs
Proponents of drug decriminalization enjoyed one of the few resounding victories on election night. Oregon became the first state to decriminalize small amounts of all drugs, including meth, cocaine, heroin, and opioids, in favor of treating drug addiction as a public health issue. Washington, D.C. decriminalized “magic mushrooms,” also known as psilocybin mushrooms, and other organic psychedelic substances. Arizona, New Jersey, Montana, and South Dakota legalized marijuana, and Mississippi approved medicinal use.
Massachusetts rejected ranked choice voting with a decisive 10-point margin, but Alaska narrowly approved it. They will join Maine as one of only two states to have implemented the election reform. This would be a major win for American third parties in a time of critical political realignment.
American gerrymandering took one step forward and one step back in Missouri and Virginia, respectively. Virginians took line-drawing powers away from their governor and General Assembly in favor of a bipartisan commission. Missouri effectively did the opposite, granting greater redistricting power to their Republican governor.
Coloradans rejected a proposal to ban abortion after 22 weeks. Louisiana decisively approved a state constitutional amendment stating that it does secure or protect the right to abortion or require the funding of abortion services.
Public education had a lot riding on the ballot and voters across the US overwhelmingly delivered. Arizona passed a bill backed by the AFL-CIO and teachers union with bipartisan support, levying an additional income tax on those making above $250,000/$500,000 (single/joint) to fund teachers’ salaries and training.
In what some are calling a watershed moment for public education, Oregon County voted to tax the rich to fund universal pre-K and give teachers a pay raise.
Many counties that voted overwhelmingly for Trump also voted to raise taxes to fund public education in predominantly Republican states such as Wisconsin and Indiana, which voted in favor of 6/10 local measures to increase public school funding.
Social and Criminal Justice
Despite 2020’s massive protest movement against the country’s murderous, prejudiced and profiteering criminal “justice” system, election night brought scant impactful change in these arenas. Instead, some states secured symbolic and semantic victories for racial justice.
Proposition 17 in California restored voting rights to people on parole for felony convictions, but Californians rejected a proposal to replace cash bail with risk assessments for those awaiting trial. Voters also rejected a bill that would make affirmative action for historically underrepresented groups legal in the state of California.
Rhode Island voted to change its official name from “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations” to “The State of Rhode Island.” “Providence Plantations” was the name of the state’s first permanent European settlement, founded in 1636 by dissidents from the Massachusetts Bay Colony seeking greater religious freedom.
Mississippi voted yes on a legislatively referred state statute—the state legislature voted to have the measure on the ballot, as opposed to registered voters petitioning for it to be on the ballot—to change their current state flag featuring a Confederate symbol to one with a magnolia on it; voting no, however, only meant they would vote on a different new flag design down the road: the Confederate symbol would be gone either way. Mississippians rejected a proposal to change their state flag in 2001.
The 13th Amendment abolished slavery except for “as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.” Some states still have similar exceptions in their own constitutions. Nebraska and Utah approved a legislatively referred statute to strip language permitting slavery as criminal punishment from their constitutions. The provisions have not been invoked in recent history, but were once used to force former enslaved people back into servitude for private parties, and later for convict leasing—the practice of prisons “leasing” out criminalized people to businesses for forced labor. In 1898, 73% of Alabama’s annual state revenue came from convict leasing.
Although the practice of selling imprisoned people’s “involuntary” labor was officially outlawed in 1941, selling the “voluntary” labor of the imprisoned is legal and increasingly common in the U.S. As current anti-immigration policy diminishes our migrant farm worker population, America’s agriculture industry becomes increasingly reliant on contracted prison labor. Like undocumented people (and now Uber drivers), imprisoned workers are not legally considered “employees” and therefore excluded from labor protections in the U.S., like the right to earn minimum wage or form a union—and forced prison labor is still legal in the United States.
Nebraskans passed the symbolic constitutional amendment 68/32, with most of the opposition coming from the state’s poorer, more rural western side.
“That’s a scary message when we start talking about business and economic development and tourism,” said State Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, the architect of the amendment. “Do we want to go to a county or a part of a state where they feel like slavery should be an option for the state (prisons) to impose?” Wayne should rest easy knowing Nebraskan economic development can always rely on its voluntary workforce of prisoners making $0.38 an hour. Would-be visitors should note imprisoned workers in Utah are guaranteed at least $0.40.