When it comes to ballot measures that passed in the 2020 election, “economic justice stuck out as an area where the wins were many,” says Ronald Newman, political director for the American Civil Liberties Union, even as people in the United States struggle with debt and layoffs during the pandemic. He describes how voters in Boulder, Colorado, approved a measure to ensure the right to counsel for people fighting eviction, and Nebraskans voted to restrict payday lending in their state. Meanwhile, voters in other states passed measures to protect women’s reproductive rights as they come under increasing attack at the federal level.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González, as we bring you Part 2, looking at some of the ballot measures that passed nationwide. You know, there’s a lot of attention around who won and lost in this election, less attention around the ballot initiatives that were passed or defeated in this recent election, from minimum wage measures to reproductive freedom to fighting evictions. For more, we continue with Ronald Newman, national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ronnie, in Part 1 of this discussion, we talked about the marijuana laws that were passed in a number of states. I want to turn now to what happened in Boulder, Colorado, around an issue that is looming for so many people right now, the issue of eviction. Can you talk about what happened in Boulder?
RONALD NEWMAN: Absolutely. So, 2020 has been a tough year. 2020 has been a tough year from a health and death perspective. And it has been a very tough year from an economic perspective. People have lost their jobs. Businesses have closed. And one of the downstream consequences is that people in rental housing have faced significant challenges making their rent every month. And we have seen evictions at higher numbers. And if we don’t take decisive action, we will see evictions at catastrophic numbers.
And so, the ACLU, as an institution, has tried to take on this looming catastrophe through a few different channels, not only pushing for eviction moratoria at the federal level, but also pushing for rental assistance support at the federal and state level, but also, as we did in Boulder, working on issues related to the right to counsel. What far too often happens is that landlords, for sometimes legitimate reasons but often for dubious reasons, walk into court, make a series of claims, and a couple of days later people are out on the streets. And some of the protections that are currently on the books aren’t taken advantage of, because people don’t understand the system. Everything is confusing and complicated, and things move too fast. And one thing that has been shown to help with that dynamic is ensuring that people have legal representation. This is still something that’s pretty rare in the United States. But Boulder, on November 3rd, became the seventh jurisdiction to lock in a right to counsel for people facing evictions. And it was done in Boulder via ballot measure, which we were happy to support. And it was successful, and pretty solidly successful, which is also a good sign about where the people are on issues like this.
I will note further progress even since November 3rd. Last week, we got the good news that in Baltimore, Maryland, and not through ballot measure this time but through city council ordinance, an ordinance was passed, also establishing a right to counsel. And Mayor Young signed it into law as one of his final acts as he is transitioning out of the Mayor’s Office. So, there’s been some positive progress here, but there’s a long, long way to go, because the catastrophe continues to loom if we don’t take effective action.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: So, Ron, could you talk about what happened in Colorado on the issues of reproductive rights?
RONALD NEWMAN: Yeah. So, in Colorado, we had a group put a ballot measure on the ballot seeking to ban and prohibit later-stage abortion access, which people and families need for a variety of fully legitimate reasons. This is another step we’ve seen in lots of states where people are seeking to chip away at the right to choose, to chip away at the reproductive freedom that is so important to individuals and families all over the country.
But we, working in coalition with a lot of local groups and with national groups like Planned Parenthood, jumped into action and fought strenuously to make sure people in Colorado knew what was at stake, not only for the people of Colorado, but also people in neighboring states that often travel to Colorado to seek healthcare treatment that is not available within their states of residence. And we were pleased to see that on Election Day, Colorado voters decisively defeated this measure, roughly 60-40. Sixty percent of the population rejected this attempt to ban abortion access in Colorado.
And those types of signals are key when you think about the broader dynamics at play these days. The Supreme Court composition has obviously changed. And there is a significant degree of fear and concern that the protections that have been provided at the federal level, principally from the court, may slip away or may diminish in nature. And so, when states like Colorado or states like New Mexico take action that protects reproductive freedom at the state level, it’s more important now than it’s been in 40 years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about what happened in Nebraska on the all-important issue of payday lending and how that affects especially low-income communities?
RONALD NEWMAN: Oh, absolutely. So, economic justice — when we took a step back and looked at the results of November 3rd, economic justice stuck out as an area where the wins were many, like drug law reform, that there were good news stories in the economic justice space. And you mentioned one of the key ones and one where we were heavily involved.
Nebraska put a cap on payday interest rates at 36%, which in and of itself is still a pretty high interest rate, but it is significantly lower than where we started. You know, over the last few years in Nebraska, payday, predatory, abusive loan interest rates have averaged over 400%, which is obviously ludicrous. And what makes it even worse is that most people don’t need to resort to payday lenders. They have bank accounts at traditional banks, credit cards through mainstream credit card providers. But people in marginalized communities, people in low-income communities often lack access to those options, because the traditional banks don’t set up shop in their neighborhood, because, you know, there’s not enough money in it, or they’ve experienced economic problems in the past that make them not qualify for the traditional credit cards. They go to the storefront, to the strip mall payday lender, that, you know, promises $400 with no need to check credit, no need to check income, no need to assess whether the person can actually afford to pay it back in two weeks when it’s due. And people get trapped in these cycles of debt that last for years, if not decades.
And so, we struck a big blow in stopping that in the state of Nebraska by putting in place this ban on payday lending. And this will help thousands of Nebraskans. And again, from a political perspective, the fact that 83% of Nebraskans voted in favor of this ballot measure is a good sign that we are approaching consensus that we need not let these sort of fly-by-night lenders take advantage of the most vulnerable members of our community. So there’s a very good, very good news story in Nebraska. And I strongly suspect that we will take that win and try to transport it to other states, because payday lending is a problem in many, many places around the country. You know, at this point, 17 states have stepped in and took action, but that still leaves 33. So there’s work to do.
AMY GOODMAN: And finally, continuing on that issue of the economically vulnerable, can you talk about what happened in Florida around the minimum wage? Were you surprised?
RONALD NEWMAN: Well, we’ve seen minimum wage succeed in a few different states over the last few years of varied political dispositions. And so, a sort of red-purple state stepping in and saying, “Minimum wage is an area where we need to make progress,” isn’t shocking at this point, but it was far from — it was far from a result that we were assuming we’d get. And Florida is a unique state, where, in Florida, you actually need 60% of the electorate to vote in favor of a ballot measure to pass it, unlike the 50% that is the prevailing norm or rule in most states. So, even when you have a sort of majority position, that is often sort of insufficient. So, we weren’t assuming the win in Florida, but we thought we had a chance. And it was great to see — it was great to see it actually happen.
Again, in a state that Trump won pretty handily, the population said, “Look, we’re in a pretty bad, pretty tough economic circumstance, and it makes sense to help people get livable wages.” So many people are experiencing economic challenges these days that a broad cross-section of Americans can directly relate. And you’ve seen the impact of that at the ballot box. And so, like payday lending in Nebraska, I strongly suspect that that minimum wage victory in Florida will be replicated in other places as we move forward, even if legislatures sit on their hands and don’t take this action that is obviously needed.
AMY GOODMAN: Just to be clear, in Florida, voters approved the ballot initiative raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, Florida the first state in the South, the eighth state overall, to adopt such a measure. But that wage hike is a gradual one. It won’t reach $15 an hour until 2026?
RONALD NEWMAN: Yeah, that’s absolutely right. And that is a strategic decision that has been made in certain contexts to allow for the adjustment to happen more slowly. And in some ways, it makes it easier to swallow in the business community. And so, you’d love for it to happen immediately, but that stairstep incremental approach might be the path to victory.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ron Newman, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Ronald Newman is national political director for the American Civil Liberties Union. To see Part 1 of our discussion, particularly around the marijuana ballot initiatives around the country, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.