Progressives: The Biggest Winners of State Ballot Measures

Liberals had a lot to celebrate on election night, from the outcome of the presidential race to a number of major Senate wins. But less noticed on the whole was the stunning display of progressive power in ballot measures across the country. From gay marriage to marijuana legalization, from teachers unions to school funding, voters on the whole supported a progressive agenda in the 2012 election. State policy not only carries major implications for the lives of state residents, it also helps set the stage for national debates on issues. In a number of states, voters were deciding the direction of public education; in others, the fate of union power. Election night brought some big victories for liberals, albeit with a few defeats. Here are the most notable winners and losers.



Over the cries of teachers' groups, legislatures around the country have passed a number of reform laws, expanding the role of testing and decreasing educators' contract protections. But on November 6, teachers' unions showed they still have some muscle. In both Iowa and South Dakota, unions successfully organized popular vetoes of school-reform packages their Republican state legislatures passed. In South Dakota, GOP Governor Dennis Daugaard had championed a measure to end teacher tenure and introduce a merit pay system and statewide evaluation system for teachers and principals; it was rejected. In Idaho, voters vetoed three different school "reforms" passed by the state legislature—one that initiated merit pay based on test scores, one that limited collective bargaining for teachers, and a third which required school districts to spend money on online courses for students. The fights were particularly important because across the country, both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have supported merit pay and decreasing collective bargaining rights for teachers. There have been few voices in opposition—until now.

It wasn’t all rosy for the teachers' unions, however. They were among the many groups opposing a controversial constitutional amendment in Georgia which allows the state to OK charter schools even when local districts have rejected them. The measure passed with nearly 59 percent of the vote. Georgia already allowed charter schools, but, as in most states, required that school districts determine which proposals to allow. The new measure opened the door for both bigger out-of-state charter companies and for-profit endeavors. The campaign for it was almost entirely funded by out-of-state groups, including the Koch brothers.

In a much less extreme case, Washington voters had to choose whether to allow 40 charter schools into the state; currently there are none. Charter-school advocates, including Bill Gates’ foundation, outspent the other side ten-to-one, but the election remains too close too call.


Everybody wants good schools. But in California, people are actually willing to pay for them. Voters approved Democratic Governor Jerry Brown’s proposal to raise taxes in order to prevent drastic cuts to public schools and universities. Had the proposition failed, universities would have had to immediately enact tuition hikes, while public schools would have had to brace for major cuts. Even so, it was unclear whether the measure could pass, because Molly Munger, a wealthy progressive activist, put a competing (and less popular) proposal on the ballot that also raised taxes for schools. Meanwhile, her conservative brother was one of several helping to fund opposition to Brown’s efforts. Common wisdom said that when voters could pick from two pro-school measures, neither one could get a majority. But Brown’s miraculously got 54 percent, while Molly Munger's was defeated.

That wasn’t the only good news for students. In Maryland, voters approved a state version of the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented students to go to college at the same in-state tuition rate that documented state residents receive. Meanwhile, in San Antonio, local voters approved a major pre-K package, which will likely make the city a leader in early childhood education and secure Mayor Julian Castro’s place as an emerging Democrat on the national stage.

Small “d” Democrats

Some of it was symbolic, some of it substantive, but across the country, voters supported progressive election reform. Perhaps most significantly, Minnesota voters rejected a law requiring strict photo ID for voters. Voter-ID laws have generally been popular with the public, in part because we hear so much about “voter fraud,” despite there being no evidence of any real problem. These laws have been promoted almost entirely by Republicans because they’re most likely to have a negative impact on poor and nonwhite communities, which are more likely to vote Democratic. The specifics of voter ID laws often determine just how many voters are at risk of losing their vote; the broader the law, the fewer people are impacted. In Minnesota, the actual specifics hadn't been determined—voters only got to vote on the general concept. While the Minnesota measure led in the polls for most of the election, in October the race suddenly tightened and by Election Day, nearly 54 percent of voters had decided they weren’t so keen on the idea.

Meanwhile in Montana and Colorado, voters voiced their support for campaign contribution limits—and their distaste for the free-for-all spending world created by Citizens United. Montana’s measure directly opposed the Supreme Court decision; voters said that that corporations, shockingly, are not in fact people.

In North Dakota, voters repealed the state constitution’s racist language and its provisions allowing for a poll tax—something you might have thought was already done. But now, at least, it is.

Gay Folks

In an outcome almost no one expected, voters in four different states affirmed support for marriage equality. While popular support has steadily grown for gay marriage, 37 states ban it. Before this election, only six states allowed gay marriage, almost all because court decisions created the precedent. No state had ever affirmed gay marriage rights through a ballot initiative. 

That's what made this year so momentuous. Voters in Washington and Maryland approved their legislatures' decisions to allow gay marriage. In Minnesota, voters rejected a ban on gay marriage, while in Maine voters overturned an already-existing ban. It was a stunning display of support, one that’s likely to create momentum for similar efforts in other states.

People Who Smoke Pot Just 'Cause

It wasn’t a good year for medicinal marijuana—but for folks in Washington and Colorado looking to get high because, hey, it’s nice outside, things went their way. There were six measures legalizing and regulating marijuana. Three that would have liberalized medical marijuana failed. But among those that sought to legalize recreational marijuana, only Oregon’s measure went down. (One likely reason: It didn't have the funding behind it that Washington and Colorado's did.)

It’s a new chapter in the drug wars—no states had ever legalized recreational pot before. Federal law hasn’t changed, so technically these measures are not legal, and it’s still not clear what the feds will do. The Drug Enforcement Agency has gone after medical marijuana providers in states where they've been legalized, so don’t expect things in Colorado or Washington to go smoothly. But if folks get stressed out by the proceedings and need to relax, well, they might be in the right place.


Affordable Care Act Proponents (Sort of)

Anti-Obamacare activists decided to stick it to the feds by putting four measures on the ballot that directly conflicted with Affordable Care Act. For the most part, they were successful. Florida voted down its measure, but in Alabama, Montana, and Wyoming it’s now illegal to "force" anyone to get health insurance.

But these were phyrric victories. The measures have no practical impact, since federal law trumps state law and the ACA is already getting implemented.

Most disappointed might be voters in Missouri. The Show-Me State already passed a measure forbidding insurance mandates; this year it passed a measure prohibiting state officials from setting up a health-care exchange, the marketplace the ACA authorizes for helping consumers choose insurance plans. Ironically, by passing that measure, the state actually cedes authority to the feds, who will set up a one-size-fits-all plan for those states that don’t create their own. In other words, the anti-Obamacare measure actually gives the Obama administration more power in Missouri.

But it’s the thought that counts!

Michigan Unions

It’s been a rough year for labor. In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker decisively won a recall election after supporting anti-collective-bargaining measures. Indiana passed a right-to-work law. And on November 6, Michigan voters rejected a ballot measure to make collective bargaining a constitutional right. The measure's pratical implications were never entirely clear, but had it passed, it almost certainly would have prevented state officials from reneging on contract agreements that had already been negotiated with public employee unions. Perhaps more disturbingly, the vote could be perceived as a referendum on union support more generally—with its defeat encouraging the efforts of anti-labor lawmakers. But even this isn't as much of a loss as you might think. That's because one of biggest threats to union contracts, emergency managers,  will not likely be a thing of the past. Before Election Day, the "emergency managers" law allowed those appointed as EMs to go into a city with a fiscal crisis and undo contract agreements with public sector unions. But that law is now off the books—voters repealed it last week.

Correction: This piece initially misstated the status of Michigan's emergency managers law, which was repealed by state voters through a popular veto.

You may also like