Measures aimed at raising the minimum wage passed overwhelmingly in the five states where they appeared on Tuesday's ballot.
The largest margin of victory as of Wednesday morning was in Alaska, where Ballot Measure 3 won by 38 points, with 68.6 percent voting yes and 31.3 percent voting against the initiative. Measure 3 will raise the state’s minimum wage by $1 in 2015 to $8.75 an hour, and another dollar in 2016, to $9.75 an hour. After that, it will be adjusted for inflation but always be $1 higher than the federal minimum wage. Now that the measure has been approved, Alaska will have one of the highest minimum wages of any state in 2016.
Issue 5 also passed handily in Arkansas, with 65 percent voting in favor and 35 percent opposed. The referendum proposed gradually raising the minimum wage—currently set below the federal minimum of $7.25—from $6.25 to $7.50 per hour on January 1, 2015, then to $8.00 per hour on January 1, 2016 and finally to $8.50 on January 1, 2017. On their Facebook page, the organization Give Arkansas A Raise Now thanked voters and said: "Now thousands will get a raise and begin to make a fair wage."
In Nebraska, proponents of Initiative 425 raised more than $1.2 million, making it the most expensive of the minimum wage campaigns. The measure, which will incrementally raise the hourly wage to $9 by January 1, 2017, passed 59.2 percent to 40.8 percent.
"Nebraskans universally share the value that 40 hours of work each week should be enough to afford the basics and care for your family," state senator Jeremy Nordquist of Omaha, who initially introduced a bill to raise the wage in the state legislature, told the Omaha World-Herald.
Lincoln senator Danielle Conrad, the Initiative 425 campaign director, told the paper: "We made history. Raising the minimum wage is an issue that unified Nebraskans."
Success was only slightly less resounding in South Dakota, where Initiated Measure 18 still won by 8 points, with 54.7 percent voting yes and 45.3 percent voting no. The proposal would increase the state minimum wage from $7.25 to a new level of $8.50 an hour in January, after which it will be indexed to inflation. The measure, sponsored by the South Dakota Democratic Party, as well as some labor unions, will also raise the hourly wage for tipped employees from $2.13 to $4.25.
Voters in Illinois also indicated their support for a higher minimum wage, by voting overwhelmingly in favor of a non-binding advisory question that asked voters whether they support increasing the hourly wage to $10 by January 1, 2015.
And in California, two cities voted to raise their minimum wage. San Francisco on Tuesday became the second U.S. city to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. In Oakland, a measure passed that will raise the wage from $9 to $12.25 starting in March.
On a night that was depressing for Democrats and progressives, these victories—four of them in red states—provided glimmers of hope.
"The minimum increases won’t improve prospects that Congress will pass President Barack Obama’s proposed federal increase to $10.10, up from the current $7.25," Marianne Levine and Timothy Noah write for Politico. "But if Congress, as expected, fails to act, these four state victories may help push the Democrat’s 2016 presidential nominee to call loudly for an increase, as Obama notably did not in 2012."
But the minimum wage wins also provide some solace to Democrats in an election year that gave them little. Republican candidates, usually opposed to increases in the minimum wage, were pressured into shifting their positions in key races. Alaska Senate candidate Dan Sullivan, Arkansas Senate candidate Tom Cotton, Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner and Arkansas gubernatorial candidate Asa Hutchinson, all Republicans, ended up coming out in favor of state wage hikes.
Arun Ivatury, senior campaign strategist for the National Employment Law Project Action Fund, predicted that Republicans won’t help themselves in 2016 if they continue to oppose the federal increase. “They’re going to create enormous headwinds for themselves,” he said, “if they’re seen as the party that opposes the minimum wage.”
Those who will benefit most from Tuesday's minimum wage victories are the workers who will actually see raises, though they aren't to the living-wage level that some activists have been pushing for.
But "minimum wage alone cannot solve the issue of income inequality," contributor Erik Sherman writes at Forbes. "Shortened work weeks prevent low-wage workers from getting ahead because, even at higher rates of pay, they cannot generate enough income. Second jobs may be impractical if both employers demand first access to workers’ time. Furthermore, the high-deductible health insurance plans that low wage workers can afford leave them in danger of economic catastrophe in the face of a serious illness."
Sherman continued: "Even so, votes for increased minimum wages were a clear win for low-wage workers and the unions that have been backing campaigns to raise the numbers. With 28 states now supporting minimum wages higher than the federal level, pressure on Congress will increase, while states with lower figures could find themselves economically uncompetitive for workers and, therefore, businesses."