11/05/2014 01:34 pm ET Updated Jan 05, 2015

Voters Choose Progressive Path on Ballot Measures

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From the media coverage and pundit reactions to yesterday's election results, you would think that progressives should just call it quits. No doubt what happened for Democrats across the country on Tuesday wasn't ideal and there's plenty of work still to do, but it's worth noting and applauding Tuesday's important progressive victories -- and some in very red states.

Over the past four years, the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC) has researched the way voters experience ballot measures. Time and again we have seen that voters, especially those that Democrats and progressives spend precious resources to reach - the New American Majority of young people, women, and people of color -- are frustrated with the hyper-partisanship and gridlock that dominates Congress and their statehouses. They're frustrated by the out-of-touch, mean-spirited debate between candidates. Most of all they're frustrated because they don't believe that things are going to change no matter which candidate or party wins. This is in stark contrast to how voters look at ballot measures -- as a direct and tangible way to participate in our democracy and make positive changes.

For many of the partners and organizations BISC works with, voter preference for progressive policies on the ballot is no surprise. While people may be discouraged by what's going on in Congress and their statehouses, they vote for progressive change on the ballot when they have the opportunity. Progressive policies on economic fairness, voting rights and gun violence prevention resonate with voters, and not just in blue and purple states.

We won major victories on ballot measures this year, and there is reason for progressives to take note -- and to be optimistic about what this means for 2016 and 2018. At a time when momentum on progressive policies is difficult to build in legislatures across the country, ballot measures are giving lift to core economic and social values.

Making and economy that works for everyone:
  • Alaska Measure 3: Minimum wage increase - 68.8% YES to 31.2% NO
  • Arkansas Issue 5: Minimum wage increase - 65.4% YES to 34.6% NO
  • Illinois minimum wage (advisory question) - 66.7% YES to 33.3% NO
  • Nebraska Initiative 425: Minimum wage increase - 59.2% YES to 40.8% NO
  • South Dakota Measure 18: Minimum wage increase - 55.1% YES to 44.9% NO
Protecting women's access to reproductive health care:
  • Colorado Amendment 67: Personhood - 35.6% YES to 64.4% NO
  • North Dakota Measure 1: Personhood - 35.9% YES to 64.1% NO
  • Tennessee Amendment 1: Constitutional amendment allowing politicians to restrict access to women's reproductive health care - 52.6% YES to 47.4% NO

Voting rights:

Expanding voting rights:
  • Connecticut Question 1: Early voting - 47.3% YES to 52.7% NO, with 88% reporting
  • Illinois voting rights amendment - 77.8% YES to 22.2% NO
Protecting voting rights:
  • Missouri Measure 6: "Sham" early voting - 29.7% YES to 76.4% NO
  • Montana LR126: Eliminating election-day registration - 43.2% YES to 56.8% NO
Gun violence prevention:
  • Washington I-594: Background checks - 59.7% YES to 40.3% NO

Leaders, legislators and future candidates should draw lessons from what voters are saying when they have the opportunity to take direct action on policy issues. As we debate the path forward for this country, I wanted to lift up into the broader post-election conversation some important lessons:

  • The success of minimum wage increases on the ballot is just the beginning of a broader conversation about creating an economy that works for everyone. This conversation goes beyond raising the minimum wage to other important pocketbook issues such as earned sick leave, pay equity for women, addressing student loan debt and more.
  • In the states where women's health was at stake on the ballot -- although they seem purely defensive on the surface -- the campaigns sparked a conversation that included a wide coalition of medical professionals, families, parents, and faith leaders who worked in partnership to speak up against these extreme measures.
  • In the wake of the Shelby County v Holder ruling that eviscerated the Voting Rights Act, voters took to the ballot box and reaffirmed that they believe there is no right more important than the right to vote. Voters were consistent on this issue -- they defeated initiatives that limited access to voting and supported initiatives that expanded voter protections. This is a positive sign that in future election cycles, direct democracy could be used to expand access to the voting booth and fight back against voter suppression.
  • Finally, what better illustration of the power of ballot measures to make a change than on the issue of gun violence prevention. Despite overwhelming public support to pass common sense gun violence prevention in Washington, D.C., all efforts have failed. Many expected the initiatives in Washington State to draw a huge well-funded campaign from the National Rile Association. That never happened -- perhaps because 74 percent of NRA members support background checks. The results in Washington State are encouraging: Initiative 594 represents a path forward in the fight for public safety measures that can help prevent gun violence and save lives.

The initiative process was created as a check on corporate power and political machines in states across the country -- over 100 years ago. Progressives should harness the momentum we are seeing on ballot measures now, and use them as a tool to chart the path forward for progressive change. For complete coverage of the key races, see BISC's Election Report.