Americans are sick and tired of seeing CEO pay and billionaire wealth in the stratosphere while working families are struggling with soaring costs. This election day, voters in several states used direct democracy to do something about it. They voted to hike taxes on the wealthy, raise wages and build union power, help ordinary people afford basic necessities, and tackle the problem of big money in politics.
Massachusetts Hikes Taxes on the Rich
Sixth time’s a charm. Massachusetts fair tax advocates had tried and failed five times since 1962 to undo the regressive flat income tax rate embedded in their state constitution. This time they were victorious. By a 52-48 margin, voters approved an income surtax of 4 percent on annual individual income above $1 million, with revenue going mostly towards public education and transportation.
In the months before the election, with polls showing the initiative was popular with the electorate, opponents launched a big propaganda campaign. They argued the measure would lead to an exodus of rich taxpayers, double the taxes of tens of thousands of residents, and slam middle class families with a huge tax burden if they sold their homes. Fortunately, voters were not swayed by this misleading messaging.
“Massachusetts voters support a fairer tax system, and greater, more stable investment in transportation and public education,” Fair Share Campaign Manager Jeron Mariani said in a statement. The surtax is expected to generate an additional $1.2 billion to $2 billion per year.
A corporate-backed “tax the rich” proposal, Proposition 30, failed in California after Governor Gavin Newsom and others slammed it as a giveaway for Lyft. The rideshare company, which stood to benefit from electric vehicle subsidies funded through the tax, spent $45 million on the campaign.
Nebraska and Nevada Raise State Minimum Wages
With Republicans continuing to block a raise in the federal minimum wage, advocates in Nevada and Nebraska took the issue directly to voters and won handily.
In deep red Nebraska, they won a state minimum wage hike to $15 an hour by 2026, up from the current $9 an hour. The National Employment Law Project and the Economic Policy Institute estimate this action will benefit about 150,000 Nebraskans.
Nebraska voters passed the measure by a 58-42 margin while also re-electing Republican members of Congress who’ve opposed federal minimum wage increases. Rep. Adrian Smith, who had blasted President Biden’s $15 federal minimum proposal as “economically harmful,” garnered 78 percent support.
In Nevada, voters approved a state constitutional amendment to increase the minimum wage to at least $12 an hour by 2024 and eliminate a loophole that has allowed companies offering health benefits to pay their workers less than the state minimum. Greedy employers have taken advantage of this two-tier system by paying lower wages while offering only shoddy insurance that many workers couldn’t even afford.
Illinois Guarantees the Right to Unionize
Illinois pro-labor groups built on the momentum of a nationwide unionization surge and the highest public support for unions since the 1960s to garner strong support for a workers rights measure. The constitutional amendment codifies the right to organize and bargain collectively and prohibits the state government from passing anti-union “right-to-work” laws, such as those in effect in 27 states.
Final results might take weeks because of the high bar required for a constitutional amendment (60 percent of those voting on the measure or a majority of those voting in the election). But with 58 percent support as of Wednesday, victory appears likely.
In an op-ed published before election day, Illinois AFL-CIO president Tim Drea explained that inserting these rights in the state constitution “will protect Illinoisans from the whims of any anti-worker politician that may come along in the future.”
DC Eliminates the Subminimum Wage for Tipped Workers
Voters in the District of Columbia had a déjà vu experience this year with Initiative 82, a ballot measure to phase out the city’s subminimum wage for restaurant servers and other tipped workers. Back in 2018 they’d overwhelmingly approved a virtually identical measure – only to have the powerful restaurant industry lobby succeed in getting the DC Council to overturn it.
Once again, DC residents voted to get rid of the tipped wage, this time by an overwhelmingly 74-26 margin. If this victory sticks, the city’s tipped wage, currently $5.35 per hour, will rise gradually until it matches the local general minimum wage by 2027. Eight states have eliminated the subminimum wage for tipped workers, and a recent One Fair Wage analysis found that restaurant workers in Seattle, where the minimum wage for all is now $15.75 — earn 23 percent more than their DC counterparts.
Andy Shallal, the owner of nine Busboys and Poets restaurants in the DC area, applauded the victory. “I have respect for my fellow restaurateurs but I really believe they are on the wrong side of history on this one,” Shallal wrote in a statement. Phasing out the tipped wage, Shallal believe, “will bring us one step closer to being a more equitable society.”
Cities in Maine, California, and Missouri Address Housing Costs
After successfully passing rent control measures in 2020, voters in Portland, Maine voted in a new slate of tenant protections. Question C – approved by 55 percent of city residents – strengthens protections for tenants by ensuring they receive at least 90 days notice for lease terminations and rent increases. The initiative also restricts security deposits to amounts equal to one month’s rent and prohibits fees for applications, credit reports, and background checks.
In California, San Francisco voters approved Proposition M – a groundbreaking “empty homes tax” to fund affordable housing. By taxing units that are vacant for the majority of the year, the city will generate tens of millions in annual revenue to invest in housing stock acquisition and rental subsidies for elderly and low-income residents. Contending with the Bay Area’s parallel vacancy and homelessness crises, the measure’s victory will help “restore the power of democracy and our political institutions to the people,” said field director Gwen McLaughlin.
A measure in Los Angeles, ULA, is on track to institute a similar model – taxing real estate transfers worth over $5 million at 4 percent and properties over $10 million at 5.5 percent. The revenue, which could reach over $1 billion per year, would also fund a suite of affordability solutions: creating more affordable housing stock, directly subsidizing rent, and providing legal resources for low-income tenants. Typical business interests vociferously oppose ULA, spending millions against its grassroots coalition of renters, workers, and anti-homelessness experts. But as pandemic-era eviction protections near expiry, Angelenos are choosing people power over the real estate lobby.
And in Missouri, Kansas City voters passed a $50 million bond to create a fund for building and revitalizing thousands of units, priced to be affordable for those making no more than 30 percent of the area’s median income.
South Dakota Expands Medicaid
Once again, ordinary folks in this deep red state have done an end run around their elected officials and used direct democracy to help their economically disadvantaged neighbors. Back in 2016, a bipartisan coalition with strong faith community support pulled off an incredible victory against financial predators, winning a ballot measure to impose a strict interest rate cap on payday loans.
This year, a similar grassroots campaign won a constitutional amendment forcing their state to expand Medicaid eligibility. Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act, the federal government will cover 90 percent of the costs if states agree to offer coverage to more low-income residents. But South Dakota and 11 other states have refused to do so. The ballot measure will change that, extending Medicaid coverage to an estimated 42,500 working class South Dakotans.
Arizonans Crack Down on Predatory Medical Debt
Over 72 percent of Arizonans voted in support of Proposition 209 — a groundbreaking ballot measure designed to crack down on predatory medical debt. The initiative caps interest rates at 3 percent on new medical debt and increases the amount of home equity, personal property, assets, and income protected from certain creditors.
“Before now, voters had never taken up medical debt on a statewide ballot measure, but Arizonans have charted a path forward to take on predatory lenders through direct democracy,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project – a national non-profit which helped fund and organize around the initiative. “We’re looking forward to working with citizens in other states who want to pass more ballot measures to protect working families from exploitative lending practices.”
More than 100 million Americans have medical debt, according to a recent investigation by NPR and Kaiser Health News. The toll is especially hard on Black communities, with 56 percent of Black adults owing money for a medical or dental bill, compared to 37 percent of white adults.
New Mexico Makes Pre-K a Universal Right
After federal actions to fund early childhood education stalled in the Senate earlier this year, over 70% of voters in New Mexico approved a ballot measure that would make the Southwestern state the first in the nation to enshrine a right to early childhood education in its constitution.
The measure would authorize lawmakers to draw from a state sovereign wealth fund to pay for universal preschool and child care. The state constitution obligates that 5 percent of the fund – currently valued at $26 billion – be withdrawn annually to support public schools, hospitals, and universities. The passage of this ballot measure would pull an additional 1.25 percent annually for education, directing roughly $150 million to early childhood education and another roughly $100 million for K-12.
Arizona and Oakland Address Dark Money in Elections
As a handful of Americans (individuals and special interests alike) flooded the midterms with untraceable billions, inequality threatened to further distort our democracy. In response, voters rebuked dark money and defended the power of their own ballots.
Arizona voters, for example, overwhelmingly approved Proposition 211, known as the Voters’ Right to Know. The measure will require public disclosure of donors who give over $5,000 to independent campaign expenditures of over $50,000 in statewide campaigns (or half that amount in other campaigns). In an otherwise highly polarized state, Arizonans found common ground through their disdain for dark money and desire for political transparency.
Voters in Oakland, California also opted to require donor disclosure on political ads. The city’s successful Measure W will also restrict former elected officials’ lobbying capacity, cap campaign contributions, and allocate democracy vouchers to local voters, who can then publicly finance candidates at their discretion.