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6 States Where Voters Could Push Democracy Forward in the Midterms

From raising the minimum wage to enacting police reforms, here are ballot initiatives progressives should watch in 2018.

In at least six states, American voters have the chance to directly enact legislation that would curb corporate lobbyist influence, raise the minimum wage, enact police reforms, or restore voting rights. (Photo: Calvindexter/Getty Images. Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene.)

In at least six states, American voters have the chance to directly enact legislation that would curb corporate lobbyist influence, raise the minimum wage, enact police reforms, or restore voting rights. (Photo: Calvindexter/Getty Images. Illustration by Enkhbayar Munkh-Erdene.)

The 2018 midterm elections in November present a real chance for Democrats to regain control of the U.S. House, Senate, and many state legislatures. Yet choosing newly elected officials won’t be the only important items on the ballot. In at least six states, American voters have the chance to directly enact legislation that would curb corporate lobbyist influence, raise the minimum wage, enact police reforms, or restore voting rights.

California was the first state to enact an initiative process in 1911, at the time in reaction to the unchecked power of the railroad barons. Now 11 states allow citizens to bypass state legislatures and enact laws directly.

“That history is extremely relevant today as progressives find themselves with state governments that have been bought by conservative-corporate billionaires types—the Koch Brothers,” says Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. “How do we have a proactive, hopeful, equitable strategy for the ballot that builds each election cycle and develops the narrative of what we care about?”

Sarver says her group will support measures in the next election cycle that address economic inequalities and expand access to democracy. Here are six state ballot initiative progressives should watch in 2018.

De-escalating Washington state

A coalition of Washington state residents called De-Escalate Washington believes racial bias and inadequate training are frequent and dangerous determinants of how and when police use deadly force. Initiative 940 would require that police use deadly force only when it is unavoidable and a last resort. It would require every law enforcement officer in the state to receive violence de-escalation, mental health, and first aid training, and would establish officer duty to apply first aid to save lives at the earliest opportunity.

De-Escalate Washington has been working for two years on statewide policing standards, but the initiative was underscored by the fatal shooting of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old African American pregnant mother of four killed by police in June. Lyles, who was struggling with mental health issues, called the police to report a home burglary, but when officers arrived they alleged Lyles was holding a knife.

There is controversy over language in the initiative that amends Washington’s police use of deadly force laws. Current law provides officers who kill in the line of duty the most legal protections of any state in the nation, according to Amnesty International, and makes proving criminal liability an extreme rarity, even in cases where officers are deemed to have acted recklessly or negligently by the courts. The “good faith” standard in I-940 aims to lower the bar for proving criminal liability of officers. Those officers who use deadly force for any of the lawful purposes defined in the initiative and “sincerely and in good faith” would not face prosecution.

Good governance in Alaska

Alaska is known for fishing, hunting, a strong military presence, and as a Republican stronghold that hasn’t supported a Democratic nominee for president since 1964. Since 2012, however, Democrats, independents, progressives, and moderate Republicans have been winning more seats in the Alaska State House of Representatives. Suddenly, one of the reddest states in the country is showing bipartisan support for the Alaska Government Accountability Act, a ballot initiative that calls for increased government ethics and accountability.

If approved by a simple majority of voters, the initiative would restrict lobbyist gifts to legislators; mandate legislators to disclose conflicts of interest and recuse themselves from votes where conflicts exist; ban financial contributions from foreign-owned companies to state candidates; and prevent legislators from billing taxpayers for foreign trips unless the trip serves a “legislative purpose” and benefits Alaskans.

Alaskans for Integrity, the bipartisan group of state legislatures and volunteers behind the initiative, hope it can be a lesson in government ethics for the rest of the nation.

“Volunteers stood outside stores in blowing snow and below-zero wind chill to get all the signatures gathered by Jan. 12,” says Jim Lottsfeldt, a spokesman for the group. “Signature gathering in Alaska’s wintertime is true dedication.”

Restoring voting rights to felons in Florida

Florida is one of four states (the others are Kentucky, Virginia, and Iowa) that bar citizens with a prior felony conviction from voting. The lifetime ban restricts 1.5 million Floridians from voting, and about one in four of those are African Americans (who make up 16.8 percent of the state’s population), many of whom committed nonviolent offenses.

The initiative, called the Voting Restoration Amendment, automatically restores voting rights to many ex-felons upon completion of their entire prison sentences, including any probation, parole, and restitution requirements. The initiative excludes those convicted of murder or felony sexual offenses.

Desmond Meade, a recent law school graduate and chair of Floridians for a Fair Democracy, the signature-gathering group behind the initiative, was convicted on drug and firearm charges in 2001. During the 2016 general election, Meade could not vote for his wife, Sheena Meade, during her candidacy for the Florida House of Representatives.

In a state where President Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by fewer than 120,000 votes, the citizen’s initiative restoring the ability to vote to an estimated 1.2 million eligible people, according to the Washington Post, in Florida could have a decisive influence on future elections.

Massachusetts’ millionaire tax

Voters in Massachusetts will decide this November on whether the commonwealth should levy a 4 percent tax on incomes in excess of $1 million, raising an estimated $1.9 billion per year in revenue to be invested in public education and transportation. Raise Up Massachusetts, a coalition of more than 100 community organizations, religious groups, labor unions, and volunteers, collected more than 157,000 signatures to qualify the Fair Share Amendment to the state constitution for the ballot.

Business groups have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Fair Share Amendment, saying it would render the state legislature powerless to spend the revenue for any other purposes. 

Andrew Farnitano, a spokesman for Raise Up Massachusetts, says that despite the legal challenge, there are “business and municipal leaders who understand the need to invest in our schools and transportation infrastructure.”

“Massachusetts is one of the richest states in the nation, but we rank 45th in state spending on higher education, 45th in the state of our transportation system, and 33rd in the share of our state’s economic resources dedicated to public education,” Farnitano says. “Without investment in these common goals, working families fall behind and our communities suffer.”

Mainers push to enact ranked choice voting—again

In 2016, Maine became the first state in the nation to approve ranked choice, a new system of voting where instead of voting for just one candidate, voters rank the candidates on the ballot in order of their preference. The intent is to allow voters to choose third-party candidates without risking the chance that their vote would serve as a spoiler in an election. Current Gov. Paul LePage first won office in 2010 with a plurality of the vote in a four-way race.

After voters approved the initial ranked-choice ballot, Maine legislators delayed its enactment and are threatening to kill the measure entirely. In response, the Committee for Ranked Choice Voting Maine has put a “people’s veto” on the ballot—a form of initiative unique to Maine—to overturn the legislature’s actions and restore ranked choice voting. Kyle Bailey, the campaign’s manager, believes Mainers voting for the veto will show there is no tolerance for a broken system.

“I think that Americans are hungry for change in our political process,” Bailey says.

“Most of us make ranked choices every day of our lives from deciding where we’re going to dinner to what car we’re going to buy. So it’s very intuitive to rank your choices,” he says. “When you do that, it gives you more opportunity to express your preferences.”

Raising the minimum wage and ending two-tiered pay for restaurant workers

A petition gaining momentum in Michigan asks voters to approve raising the state minimum wage to $12 per hour in 2020 from its current rate of $9.25 per hour.

In addition, the One Fair Wage initiative is similar to that in seven other states that require employers to pay employees who receive tips or gratuities the full state minimum wage before tips, says Alicia Renee Farris, director of the Restaurant Opportunities Center of Michigan.

Under federal law, tipped workers are only required to be paid $2.13 per hour. If tipped workers’ total earnings, counting tips, don’t add up to at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, the law requires employers to make up the difference.

According to ROC, the One Fair Wage initiative would eliminate this two-tiered minimum wage for tipped workers that leaves 435,000 in Michiganders in the restaurant industry earning just $3.52 per hour, the state’s minimum wage for tipped workers.

“We’re looking for $12 per hour [minimum] for every Michigander. People can relate to that. They understand they need a raise just to meet their basic needs,” Farris says.

The largest beneficiaries of the initiative will be women, says Saru Jayaraman, the co-founder and co-director of ROC. Women in Michigan are overrepresented in the restaurant industry as servers, hostesses, and waitresses, and their reliance on tips leaves them susceptible to harassment and abuse from customers and employers. While many factors contribute to the gender pay gap, one reason is that women are disproportionately impacted by the tipped minimum wage, she says.

“Especially since so many other women in the state worked in this industry and can remember experiences of harassment on the job, we find talking about the inequity women face, the sexual harassment, the instability of living on tips, all of that has really been a key driver and a reason why this had become such a popular issue in the state of Michigan,” Jayaraman says.

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Kevon Paynter

Kevon Paynter is the Surdna reporting fellow for YES! Follow him on Twitter @KevonPaynter.

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