Progressive policies win big in the midterms

From minimum wage to gerrymandering, citizens stepped up where legislatures wouldn’t

Polling location sign (photo by Steve Bott [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons)
Polling location sign (photo by Steve Bott [CC BY 2.0] via Wikimedia Commons)

Midterm elections were held last week, and the big stories obviously dealt with which candidates got elected. Democrats were placed back in control of the House, while Republicans held on to the Senate. Races for governor drove major interest nationwide.

Much has been written about progressive candidates and how well they performed at the polls. Less attention has been paid, however, to how well progressive issues performed. And the success of these issues was far greater than most realized.

Across the nation, citizens voted on state ballot measures on a range of progressive issues:

  • Missouri, Michigan, Utah, and Colorado passed measures creating independent redistricting bodies to help prevent partisan gerrymandering.
  • Michigan joined 9 other states and D.C. in legalizing marijuana. Of those states, only Vermont has done so through the legislature. The rest used ballot measures.
  • Colorado limited payday lenders to charging 36% interest. (Related – ForwardKY story on payday lending)
  • Voters in Arkansas and Missouri supported raising their states’ minimum wages.
  • Nebraska, Utah, and Idaho voted to expand Medicaid.
  • Nevada and Michigan voted to institute automatic voter registration, with Michigan also adding same day registration and no excuse absentee voting.
  • And garnering the most attention was Florida’s Amendment 4, which extended the vote to around 1.5 million people who had been disenfranchised due to felony convictions, leaving just Kentucky and Iowa as the only two states to permanently bar those convicted of felonies from voting. (Related – ForwardKY story on felon voting rights)

The success of these issues nationwide shows a clear desire for these policies. It also shows that legislatures don’t always focus on the policies which are most important to citizens.

One of the biggest justifications for ballot initiatives is that they provide citizens a way to get around an unresponsive legislature. If representatives are not addressing the needs of citizens, those citizens can take matters into their own hands by crafting legislation. The success of these measures can be seen then not just as voters supporting these policies, but as voters rebuking legislatures for not dealing with the issues themselves. (Although, the Colorado redistricting measures were legislatively referred.)

Kentucky does not have a process for citizens to directly place a measure on the ballot at all, making most of the above situations not possible. Instead, we rely only on legislatively referred statutes and amendments.

It would be a great step forward for democracy in Kentucky to make citizen-initiated ballot measures possible. But even without this process available to us, we can still benefit from it.

The states which undertook these measures were diverse geographically, socially, and politically. Yet similar policies found support and success in all of them. This strongly undercuts the argument that progressive legislation wouldn’t be popular in Kentucky. It should also give legislators, even conservative legislators, courage to support ideas such as automatic voter registration or felon re-enfranchisement here.

These are winning policies, favored by broad swaths of the population, regardless of geography or political affiliation. Our legislators should learn from the success of these measures in other places, and work to adopt similar policies right here in Kentucky without fear of voters not supporting these issues.


Neal Turpin
Dr. Neal Turpin is a recent PhD graduate of the University of Louisville’s School of Urban and Public Affairs, where he focused on public policy and participation, democratic structures, and efficiency. He enjoys spending time with his wife, Sara, working out at the Southeast YMCA, where the two of them met, and teaching Sunday school at Buechel Park Baptist Church. Neal also has an appreciation for trivia, movie scores, and the Muppets.