From Pot to 'Democracy Vouchers,' Election Day 2015 Races to Watch

Seattle's "democracy vouchers" initiative would be the first system of its kind in the country. (Photo: Erik (HASH) Hersman/flickr/cc)

From Pot to 'Democracy Vouchers,' Election Day 2015 Races to Watch

From clean elections to transgender rights to marijuana legalization, voters across the US will weigh in on progressive issues Tuesday.

From clean elections to transgender rights to marijuana legalization, voters across the United States will weigh in on progressive issues via local and statewide ballot questions this Tuesday.

Here, Common Dreams runs down the high-profile races to watch:

Clean Elections in Maine

Maine's Question 1 would strengthen the state's Clean Election Act by:

  • increasing funding for the Maine Clean Elections Fund from $2 million to $3 million by eliminating $6 million in "low-performing, unaccountable" corporate tax exemptions, deductions, or credits "with little or no demonstrated economic development effect";
  • upping penalties for violating campaign finance disclosure rules;
  • adjusting political ad disclosure rules to require the disclosure of a campaign's top three funders; and
  • allowing candidates to qualify for additional funds.

Supported by a wide range of local and national pro-democracy organizations, Question 1 would ensure that "candidates throughout Maine can run for office without being reliant on special interests and big money donors," U.S. Sen. Angus King, an Independent, wrote in an op-ed last month.

The state's Republican governor, Paul LePage, who has called taxpayer-funded political campaigns "welfare for politicians" and a "scam," opposes Question 1, saying recently that the proposal was "like giving my wife my checkbook."

Maine's largest city, Portland, will also vote Tuesday on an initiative to raise the city's standard minimum wage for workers at large businesses to $15 per hour by 2017 and boost the minimum pay for all private employees in the city to $15 per hour by 2019.

Public Campaign Financing in Seattle, Washington

Seattle voters in King County, Washington will say 'Yes' or 'No' to Initiative Measure No. 122, which seeks to increase public participation in government through laws regulating campaign finance and elections--and, with its "democracy vouchers," would be the first system of its kind in the country.

According to Ballotpedia, the ballot measure would set up a voucher system by which all Seattle voters would be given four $25 vouchers that they could give to a candidate or candidates of their choosing, provided the candidate adheres to certain campaign contribution limits. The vouchers would be funded, in part, by a 30-year annual property tax levy of about $3,000,000, requiring a rate of approximately $1.94 per 100,000 assessed property value.

Among other provisions, the initiative would also:

  • require more precise reporting of a candidate's personal and family finances;
  • prohibit candidate campaign contributions from any person or entity that has $250,000 in contracts with the city or has had $250,000 in contracts with the city in the last two years. It would also prohibit candidates from accepting contributions from anyone who has paid $5,000 to lobby the city in the last 12 months;
  • require that any signature gatherer that is being paid must display a sign or badge that says: PAID SIGNATURE GATHERER; and
  • prohibit elected officials and their high-level staff from lobbying the city government within three years of leaving office.

"Honest Elections Seattle is our best chance at reducing the role of money in Seattle politics," said Seattle City Council member Estevan Munoz-Howard. "We already have some of the most expensive city council races in the country, which are funded by less than 1% of our city's population. This initiative will amplify the voices of regular people and reduce the role that wealthy donors and paid lobbyists play in setting our city's priorities."

As John Light wrote for Moyers & Company on Monday: "Advocates think that the initiative will incentivize candidates to spend more time with voters, hoping to win their vouchers, and less time with well-heeled special-interest donors. Influential Seattle companies seem to agree: Microsoft and a number of other heavy hitters have mobilized money to oppose the initiative."

Transgender Protections in Houston, Texas

In its run-down of Election Day 2015, Daily Kos notes that it's "a crowded race" to become the next mayor of Houston, America's fourth-largest city.

However, there's another major outcome to watch for in Houston on Tuesday--the referendum on the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO).

On the ballot as Proposition 1, HERO would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity--criteria not covered by federal anti-discrimination laws--especially "in city employment, city services, city contracting practices, housing, public accommodations, and private employment."

Supported by civil rights groups including the ACLU of Texas, the NAACP Houston Branch, and Equality Texas, the ordinance has garnered the support of more than 60 local businesses. It would exempt religious institutions.

Still, "religious conservatives are focused on defeating HERO, and they have some big money backing on their side,"Daily Kos reported on Monday. "In particular, they've tried to drum up fears that HERO would make it easier for rapists to pose as transgendered women and prey on female victims in bathrooms." That myth has been debunked.

According to the Houston Chronicle last week, polls show that one in five Houston voters are still undecided about how to vote on the proposition.

Pot (and Partisan Gerrymandering) in Ohio

On Tuesday, Ohio could become the fifth state to legalize pot for medicinal and personal use if voters approve Issue 3. If it does so, the New York Timesnoted on Sunday, it would be the first state to okay recreational use without first legalizing medical marijuana.

The Ohio Marijuana Legalization Initiative (pdf) would:

  • Allow anyone 21 years or older--with a $50 license purchased from the Ohio Marijuana Control Commission, similar to a fishing license--to use, possess, grow, cultivate, and share up to eight ounces of homegrown marijuana and four flowering marijuana plants;
  • Allow anyone 21 years or older (with or without a license) to purchase, possess, transport, use and share up to one ounce of marijuana;
  • Create 10 Marijuana Growth, Cultivation and Extraction (MGCE) facilities, which would have exclusive rights to commercial production.

It's that final provision that has engendered criticism from more than the usual suspects--so much so, in fact, that "many legalization advocates are finding themselves sleeping with the enemy in the prohibitionist camp," Politico reported Sunday.

Critics charge that the initiative, bankrolled by wealthy investors who spent nearly $25 million to put it on the ballot and sell it to voters, would create a "monopoly for a small group of wealthy investors." ("Technically 'oligopoly' would be a more accurate accusation," Politico noted, "since there will be 10 companies--but the popular board-game title rings a little clearer in campaign literature.")

As Politico explained:

Many advocates in Ohio have openly argued voting against Issue 3, imploring fellow legalizers to wait a year for a more policy-oriented, less profit-minded ballot initiative. To a degree, their opposition is couched in economic policy: repulsed by the specter of monopoly, many longtime legalization activists say they want low barriers to entry, safeguards for medical patients, looser possession limits and more grow-your-own plants at home. But only part of this typology is economic: many legalizers' opposition to this form of legalization speaks less to policy then it does to culture--and the tidal shift in a movement increasingly transforming tie-dye into suit and tie.

Given all this controversy, "polls are of little help in predicting the outcome on Tuesday," the Columbus Dispatch wrote on Monday.

Indeed, a recent survey by the University of Akron suggested that while a majority of voters support legalizing and taxing recreational and medical marijuana in theory, the oligopoly clause could undermine the anti-prohibition mindset.

"Pollsters concluded that if voters cast their ballots on the basis of legalizing or taxing marijuana, Issue 3 will likely pass," the Northeast Ohio Media Groupreported last month. "But 53 percent of voters agreed Issue 3 is a 'bad idea because it will grant ten wealthy landowners a monopoly on growing marijuana in Ohio'."

Meanwhile, voters in Ohio will also be asked to weigh in on Issue 1 (pdf), which would create a new, bipartisan commission to draw legislative districts that are compact and do not favor one political party or another.

"Districts that overwhelmingly favor one party or the other don't only disenfranchise minority-party voters; they lead to lousy legislatures," the Columbus Dispatchwrote in its editorial urging a 'Yes' vote. "Elections effectively are decided in the partisan primary, by candidates who know they'll have no need to appeal to voters of the opposite party. This tends to stock the Statehouse not with thoughtful problem-solvers but ideologues. Issue 1 could change that, by creating districts in which candidates have to earn votes by appealing to a broader spectrum of voters, rather than competing to outpander partisan rivals."

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