From Campaign Finance to Pot, Progressives Look to Local Voters

Giving up on the gridlock at the federal and state levels, progressives are turning their attention to local ballots to get their ideas passed. But policies that sell well in cities won't always work statewide.
by | October 2, 2015

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.

In November, voters in Ohio will decide whether to legalize marijuana by way of a statewide ballot initiative. Toledo residents, however, apparently couldn't wait. They approved a local pot decriminalization measure on Sept. 15.

Toledo was one of several cities around the country -- including Wichita, Kan., and East Lansing, Mich., -- where voters got the chance this year to reconsider marijuana laws. The pot measures are part of a trend of advocates for progressive causes pushing their ideas through municipal ballot measures. The usual charter amendments and bond questions on local ballots now share space with questions addressing campaign finance and minimum wage increases.

"On the part of voters, there's just incredible frustration that they don't see motion at the state or federal level," said Sally Clark, a former member of the Seattle City Council. "Those areas tend to be more gridlocked."

Sometimes, voters don't even want to wait for the folks at City Hall to act. Since cities are more amenable to liberal causes than many states, elected officials in many cities have promoted ideas such as minimum wage increases, paid sick leave requirements and stricter environmental regulations. But ballot measures provide a conduit for progressive activists looking to promote ideas that haven't won over politicians in all localities.

"It is a lot easier to get something different passed if there's an initiative process, rather than trying to go through city councils or state legislatures," said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association and one of the authors of a voter-approved change in the Seattle City Council's governance structure that's taking effect this year. "We just found one person ready to write the check."

On Nov. 3, voters in Tacoma, Wash., and Portland, Maine, will decide whether to increase the local minimum wage to $15 per hour. Voters in Houston will decide whether to support a measure designed to block discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Denver voters will decide whether to raise the sales tax to help fund scholarships and grants for residents pursuing higher education.

In Seattle, the main question on the ballot this November is a nine-year, $930 million property tax levy to pay for transportation projects. But voters there will also decide whether to limit campaign contributions to local politicians, while also raising taxes to fund $25 vouchers that households could hand out to the candidates of their choice. The theory is that this will get people more engaged in the political process, while making candidates accountable to a broader pool of supporters.

"Voters are tired of waiting," said Heather Weiner, campaign director for the so-called Honest Elections initiative. "Local areas are kind of the incubators for these interesting ideas and we're trying to make it happen here."

If an idea can sell in Seattle, maybe it will work elsewhere. That seems to be part of the motivation in promoting the campaign finance measure, which has received the bulk of its financial support from outside the state. If the idea is successfully test-marketed locally, activists can take it to other communities or try it out on a statewide ballot, suggests Jordan Royer, a columnist for Crosscut, an online publication in Seattle, and a critic of the Honest Elections measure.

"The campaign's bankrolled by investors in New York, trying to do this around the country," Royer said. "It's part of a national program."

It's a model that has worked with other issues, notably the $15 minimum wage. That idea seemed like an outlier as recently as two years ago, when voters in SeaTac, the small city surrounding the Seattle-Tacoma airport, approved it. Since then, big cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles have adopted the $15 rate. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo approved that rate for fast-food workers in the state last month.

But progressive ideas that sell well in cities won't always work politically statewide. Numerous states -- including Arkansas, North Carolina and Texas -- have preempted or overridden local laws on issues such as fracking bans and anti-discrimination measures.

Last month, a court ordered a proposed $15 minimum wage proposal removed from the ballot in Kansas City, since Missouri lawmakers had already prohibited cities from adopting such policies.

And not every idea that has enough support to get on the ballot will win approval. Voters in several cities in Michigan, for example, voted down pot legalization measures this year.

But advocates are finding that putting their causes before a discreet, localized group of supporters is not a bad way to go.

"Some of the ideas stick and some spread, while others don't," said Melissa Marschall, an expert on local elections at Rice University. "But that's the laboratory for trying different ideas."

This is part of our 2015 elections coverage. Get more on ballot measures and races here.