As voters in the United States go to the polls, we look at some of the most important decisions they will make—not for president, governor, Senate or congressional races, but on more than 160 ballot initiatives in 35 states, more than in any election in the last decade. Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in nine states, and income inequality and economic insecurity are at the heart of many other measures, along with initiatives on guns, public education, the death penalty and Colorado’s Amendment 69, a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment which would finance universal healthcare. We are joined by Justine Sarver, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, and Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, whose article in Truthout is titled "Seventeen Ballot Initiatives to Watch If You Care About Inequality."
AMY GOODMAN: As the United States goes to the polls today, we begin with a look at some of the most important decisions voters will make. It’s not president, governor, Senate or congressional races, but more than 160 ballot initiatives are on the ballot in 35 states—more than in any election in the last decade. Marijuana legalization is on the ballot in nine states. Other initiatives include reforms around guns, public education, the minimum wage, the death penalty, taxes, same-sex marriage.
One closely watched race is Colorado’s Amendment 69, a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment which, if passed, would finance universal healthcare there. Former Democratic presidential nominee Bernie Sanders spoke in support of the measure last month at a rally in Boulder.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Colorado can send a shot that will be heard all over this country and all over the world, because if you can pass ColoradoCares, then I guarantee you states all over this country will be following in your footsteps.
AMY GOODMAN: In an editorial last month, The Denver Post editorial board suggested voters should reject the measure. This is Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett.
CHUCK PLUNKETT: We’re concerned about the taxes that would be assessed, the new taxes that would be assessed. Best way to understand it is to remember the number 10. And think of any kind of income you might possibly get. Ten percent of it’s going to go to ColoradoCare. So your payroll tax, if you’re retired, your Social Security pensions, your IRA money, that kind of income, once you get past $24,000 a year, it’s assessed 10 percent tax. If costs go up—and again, that study by the Colorado Health Institute, which is an independent organization, suggests they will, dramatically—then the taxes are going to chase after them.
AMY GOODMAN: Supporters of ColoradoCare say the system could operate in the black for at least nine years. More than any other issue, however, ballot initiatives that address income inequality and economic insecurity are at the heart of many of this year’s measures. Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Washington all vote on minimum wage increases. South Dakota will vote on protections against predatory lenders. And in the country’s most expensive ballot initiative fight, Big Pharma has poured nearly $100 million into California’s Proposition 61, which would prevent price gouging for prescription drugs.
For more, we’re joined by two guests. In Jackson, Mississippi, Justine Sarver is with us, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center. And joining us from Washington, D.C., Sarah Anderson, director of the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her article for Truthout is headlined "Seventeen Ballot Initiatives [to] Watch If You Care About Inequality."
We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Let’s go to Justine in Jackson, Mississippi, first. Talk about ballot initiatives. There are more than 160 on the ballot across the country. Where do they come from? Who is behind them?
JUSTINE SARVER: It’s great to be with you again. Thanks for having me.
So, the thing I love about ballot initiatives is, just underneath what has been a sometimes absurd dialogue at the presidential level, we have issues on the ballot that voters really care about. And this year we’re seeing more citizen initiatives than we have in 10 years. And as you mentioned, economic security is a big deal this year. So, the minimum wage measures, two of them also have earned sick leave, in Arizona and Washington state. These are issues that people are concerned about every day. And unfortunately, some of the issues have been lost in the debate this year, but voters get to go to the ballot and vote for a raise, vote for earned sick leave and also, in a number of states, pass revenue increases that will protect and increase funding for public education and other critical services.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Anderson, we began by talking about the initiative in Colorado, ColoradoCare, that deals with single-payer healthcare. Can you talk about what this battle is about and who is funding both sides?
SARAH ANDERSON: I think this is an example of many ballot initiatives this year that is really building on Bernie Sanders’ efforts to put inequality at the center of the political debate. And you have the one in Colorado on public healthcare, but Bernie has also been very involved in Prop 61 in California about drug price gouging. He has been rallying folks there in the same way and has also been saying that if it could pass there, in much the same way as the Colorado one, it could really spark a national movement. In the [California] one—of course, that’s the most expensive ballot initiative fight in the country—Big Pharma has poured in $109 million into blocking that. And the latest polls show it’s tied. So, I think both of these will be real bellwethers in how people see these issues that, as Justine says, hit very close to home.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re saying that most expensive one is in California, where the drug companies have put in over $100 million. What about these issues of minimum wage?
SARAH ANDERSON: Well, in addition to what Justine mentioned about how there are four state ballot initiatives that would raise the minimum wage in different countries [sic], I would lift up the one in Maine, which is very important—
AMY GOODMAN: In states.
SARAH ANDERSON: —because it would also phase out the subminimum wage for restaurant workers and other tipped workers, who haven’t gotten a federal minimum wage increase in 25 years. So it’s an example of people not wanting to wait around for Washington to act. They’re using this tool for direct democracy to take action into their own hands.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s look at Arizona, one of the four states with ballot initiatives to increase the minimum wage. This is Maricopa County Supervisor Steve Gallardo, who’s in favor of the measure, followed by Glenn Hamer, president and CEO of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, who’s against it. The two debated the issue on Arizona PBS.
STEVE GALLARDO: It’s been 10 years since the voters had an opportunity to increase the minimum wage, and now it’s time. I think, as you see, many families right now are struggling to make ends meet. You know, they’re working two jobs just to put food on the table. This modest increase to $10 come this January, and going up to $12 by 2020, is good. It’s good for working families. It’s good for our economy. It’s good for Arizona. And it’s time for us to address it.
GLENN HAMER: Well, the fact is, the minimum wage does go up every year. That was part of the ballot initiative that passed about 10 years ago. We’re now at $8.05. We have a considerably higher minimum wage than what exists on the federal level. The reason why we oppose this, Ted, is that this is going to cost jobs, and a lot of jobs for those at the entry-level portion of their career, number one. Two, this is going to hurt a lot of businesses, particularly small businesses in rural Arizona.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Anderson at the Institute for Policy Studies, you deal with this a great deal. Your response?
SARAH ANDERSON: Well, the Economic Policy Institute and many others have done good research showing that when you raise the minimum wage, it increases domestic spending power and is good for the overall economy. And I would just remind folks that it was in the last election that four red states voted for minimum wage increases. And I think that was something that really empowered the whole Fight for 15 movement to show the broad appeal across the political spectrum for paying a living wage.
AMY GOODMAN: And what’s interesting on these minimum wage initiatives in the past is that Republicans, like Democrats, red states and blue states, have all supported these increases. Is that right, Sarah?
SARAH ANDERSON: That’s correct. This is not a partisan issue necessarily. And I think people see it as a way to get people out to the polls, because, as Justine said, these are issues that really affect people’s daily lives. They can vote to give people a raise today, and that is much more concrete than a lot of the issues being discussed at the national level.
AMY GOODMAN: We have discussed in the past, Justine Sarver in Jackson, the issue of drug legalization, of marijuana legalization, very much on the ballot in a number of states, could increase the states where people who are using marijuana—what? Five percent now it’s legal in the United States, could increase to 25 percent.
JUSTINE SARVER: Well, what’s interesting here, I think, is, you know, obviously, marijuana advocates in 2012 set their sights on this election, and we’re seeing that with nine measures on the ballot across the country either for medical or recreational legalization. What we care about in the future of this debate is, you know, the criminal justice reform aspect, labor piece and, really, who’s involved in these new economies that are being created.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to ads for and against. Polls in California show strong support for Prop 64, the Adult Use of Marijuana Act. This is an ad made by Yes on 64.
YES ON 64 AD: Prop 64 makes marijuana legal in California for adults 21 and over. And here’s what else it does: bans marijuana use in public; permits sales only at licensed marijuana businesses, not at grocery or convenience stores. And Prop 64 generates a billion in new tax revenue for California to fund after-school programs and job training and placement initiatives. Learn more at YesOn64.org. Vote yes on 64.
AMY GOODMAN: And this is an ad made by No on Prop 64.
NO ON PROP 64 AD: Proposition 64 will allow marijuana smoking ads in prime time and on programs with millions of children and teenage viewers. Children could be exposed to ads promoting marijuana gummy candy and brownies, the same products blamed for a spike in emergency room visits in Colorado. Fatalities doubled in marijuana-related car crashes after legalization in Washington state. Yet, in California, Proposition 64 doesn’t even include a DUI standard. Prop 64, they got it wrong again.
AMY GOODMAN: Justine Sarver, talk about where these initiatives are, those ads from California, Prop 64.
JUSTINE SARVER: Well, I think, you know, we’re going to have to wait to see what happens on these initiatives across the country, and wake up tomorrow morning and have sort of a better sense of how things shake out. But it definitely is sparking a debate across the country about, you know, how—the future of marijuana and where things will had federally.
But what I think it’s important to get back to here is the economic security issues that have been just under the radar of this presidential election—these minimum wage ballot measures, revenue. And at BISC, with our partners, we’re looking at a plan for building momentum off of these issues, continuing the economic dialogue into 2018 and 2020, engaging voters, again and again and again, on issues that matter to them.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go right now to Bernie Sanders on the issue of ballot initiatives. When he launched Our Revolution in August, he stressed the importance of mobilizing around significant ballot initiatives.
SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: We can shape governmental policy by supporting major ballot initiatives taking place in states throughout the United States. Not every state has statewide ballot initiatives. We don’t here in Vermont. But many states do. There are about 125 statewide ballot initiatives coming up in November. As I understand it, Our Revolution will be focusing on seven key initiatives which are of enormous importance to the particular states involved, but also significant for the entire country. In my view, there is nothing more important that we can do as progressives than overturn the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision.
AMY GOODMAN: Sarah Anderson, what other ballot initiatives are you looking at in the more than 160 there are around the country?
SARAH ANDERSON: Thank you for asking. We have identified 17 ballot initiatives related to inequality that we’ll be tracking on our website, Inequality.org. Some of the other key ones look at predatory lending. South Dakota has two ballot initiatives—one that is genuinely in support of protecting consumers from payday lenders; the other one is funded by the payday industry and is written in a very misleading way, so I know activists are working hard to cut through the miscommunication on that one. Other measures to increase taxes on wealthy and the corporations, Oregon has one to increase corporate taxes. That’s a state that has very, very low tax rates for corporations. California is voting to extend their top tax rate on individuals, which is the highest in the country. Hopefully, as the Californians are looking at their Tolstoy novel-length ballots, they won’t miss that one or Prop 61 on pharmaceuticals.
I would just like to also add that, you know, Bernie Sanders’ involvement in this, coming from an inequality perspective, is so interesting to me, because if you look back at the history, it was back during the Gilded Age when progressive reformers first started working to have these citizen-led petitions to circumvent the power of economic elites. And here we are in 2016, when levels of income and wealth concentration are about on par with the extreme levels that they were at during the Gilded Age, that people are turning to these tools to try to narrow our economic divide. And it will be fascinating to see how they turn out tonight.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Justine Sarver, the issue of the death penalty, actually two competing ballots in California, is that right?
JUSTINE SARVER: Yes. What we need to know about the death penalty is that it is a 40-year low in terms of support in this country. So, no matter what happens tonight, this is—this election is a blip on the long, steady decline of interest by Americans in capital punishment.
AMY GOODMAN: And in California, you’ve got a ballot initiative that would speed up the death penalty and another one that would abolish it. Is that right?
JUSTINE SARVER: That is correct.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both. We will certainly be looking at this. We’re doing a five-hour special tonight beginning at 7:00 Eastern time until midnight, or as long as it takes to cover all of the issues around the country. I want to thank Justine Sarver, Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, speaking to us from Jackson, Mississippi, and Sarah Anderson with the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.
And a quick correction on the headlines: In the congressional races today, Zephyr Teachout is running for New York’s 19th Congressional District, which covers the Hudson Valley and Catskills regions, not the 9th District.
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we go to the battleground state of Ohio with investigative journalist Greg Palast. Stay with us.