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Local Ballot Results: Teen Voting, Campaign Finance, Housing and More

A rundown of the most interesting and consequential local measures.

Man sitting down in a voting booth.
For results of state ballot measures, click here.

Should the system that was used to select medieval popes be used to elect city commissioners in Fargo, N.D.? That seemingly odd question was just one of multiple ballot measures at the local level dealing with voting this year.

"Election policy is such a hot topic," says Josh Altic, director of the ballot measures project at Ballotpedia.

Most of this year's municipal and county ballot measures dealt with traditional topics, such as approving bonds for schools and parks. But a good number addressed policy questions including housing, banking, campaign finance and energy.

Voters in Flagstaff, Ariz., refused to repeal a local minimum wage hike they passed in 2016, continuing the trend of wage increases winning approval at the ballot box. 

In California, local versions of a failed statewide measure over the regulation of dialysis, which is used to treat kidney problems, were rejected in the cities of Livermore and Palo Alto. Those measures would have limited the amount that dialysis companies could charge to 15 percent above the "reasonable" cost of service. Any overage would have to be rebated. 

Here's an overview of some of the other most interesting and consequential measures on local ballots around the country:


Public Campaign Financing

Ballot measures in a few major cities sought to limit the influence of big donors on campaigns, largely by having the cities fund campaigns themselves.

"Almost all the public financing we're seeing enacted is at the city and county level," says Catie Kelley, director of policy and state programs at the Campaign Legal Center. 

Voters in Baltimore and Denver created public campaign financing systems, while voters in New York City could expanded theirs. 

In Denver, voters passed a charter amendment to amplify donations for candidates who accept public funds. Now, when city residents donate to local candidates, the city will multiply those contributions up to $50 by a 9-to-1 ratio, which means a $50 donation would be worth a total of $500 to a candidate. In exchange, candidates who accept the funds would face overall caps on contributions, which would vary depending on the office.

The New York ballot measure will expand the size of the public financing match from 6-to-1 to 8-to-1.

"It creates a strong incentive for candidates to raise money from residents within the city," says Kelley, of the Campaign Legal Center.

The shape of Baltimore's new system remains completely up in the air. A commission will figure things out, including how to pay for a new "fair elections fund."

An expansion of Albuquerque, N.M.'s public financing system will be on the ballot there in February.


Banking and Cashing In

The Los Angeles City Council unanimously sent a proposal to voters that would create a public bank, which they rejected.

Rather than relying on private institutions to finance housing, infrastructure and community development, the city would have set up its own bank that supporters said could eventually serve the broader community.

Public-sector banks were at one time fairly common in early America, but now the Bank of North Dakota, established in 1919, stands alone. But officials in other jurisdictions have expressed interest in setting them up, including New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy.

With commercial banks funding companies and activities that many L.A. residents find "reprehensible," having the city start its own bank would have been "a logical step for divestment," says David Jette, volunteer legislative director for Public Bank LA, which backed the charter amendment. Commercial banks, he says, have poorly served hundreds of thousands of Angelenos, mostly black and Hispanic. Jeffe contends that a public bank could have also saved the city money since it would no longer have to pay fees to commercial banks.

The banking industry disputed that.

Because taxpayer dollars would be used to capitalize the bank, those dollars would potentially be put at risk, traditional bankers argued, with no clarity as to how potential defaults would be covered. What's more, startup costs could run into the billions, says Beth Mills, a spokeswoman for the Western Bankers Association.

"A public bank large enough to serve the metropolitan area of L.A. will need to hire attorneys, consultants and compliance officers, with compliance costs likely to total millions of dollars annually," Mills says.

In Alabama, sheriffs have courted controversy by pocketing unspent portions of the funds designated to feed inmates. Last month, the Alabama Ethics Commission dropped its investigation of Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin, who had used food funds to buy a $740,000 beach house, concluding that he violated no rules to do so.

In response to local abuses, Cullman and Morgan County voters approved measures banning the practice for their sheriffs.


Taxing for a Cause

Voters in select jurisdictions around the country weighed in on whether to raise their own taxes -- or those paid by local businesses -- to fund specific programs.

Portland, Ore., imposed a licensing fee on large retailers to pay for clean energy projects. But voters in Allegheny County, Pa., which includes Pittsburgh, rejected a children's fund measure that would have increased property taxes to pay for early childhood education, afterschool programs and school nutrition.  

San Francisco's Measure C passed, however. It will tax the city's top corporations to fund homeless services. The measure will impose a gross receipts tax of about 0.5 percent on corporate revenue topping $50 million, which means it would apply to more than 300 of the city's largest businesses.  

Measure C will raise up to $300 million a year, which would effectively double the amount of money spent by the city to combat homelessness. Half of the money will be earmarked for housing; 15 percent will go toward prevention of homelessness, such as eviction defense; 10 percent will be devoted to emergency shelters; and 25 percent will be devoted to mental health services. 

Marc Benioff, who chairs the tech company Salesforce, not only backed Measure C but donated $2 million in support. The tax bill for Salesforce, the city's largest private employer, will go up by some $10 million under the new measure.

But other tech CEOs and corporations were against it, including Jack Dorsey of Twitter, who gave $75,000 to the opposition campaign; Stripe, which gave $400,000; and Lyft, which gave $100,000. 

Mayor London Breed also opposed Measure C. She said she believes the city should first inventory its current homeless services and needs and make sure there is greater accountability for the influx of money that will come in.  


Affordable Housing

In San Jose, Calif., Measure V would authorize the city to issue up to $450 million worth of bonds to fund affordable housing for a variety of groups, including working families, veterans, seniors, teachers, nurses, paramedics, survivors of domestic violence, disabled and homeless people. It's right on the edge of the two-thirds majority needed for passage.

Berkeley, Calif., voters approved $135 million worth of bonds to help house low-income people.

Again, there is overlap between a statewide initiative in California and local measures. Proposition 10 would have repealed a state law that limits cities' power to impose rent control. In Berkeley voters approved rent regulations that would have taken effect if the statewide measure had passed, but Santa Cruz voters rejected the idea.


Voting Age and Method

Voting methods and the voting age were up for debate in several jurisdictions.

Golden, Colo., opted not to join a handful of other cities in allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in local elections.

"They will be affected by the decisions of voters longer than lots of other people in the electorate," said Golden Mayor Marjorie Sloan, who supported the proposal.

There was no organized opposition to the measure. Nonetheless, it failed. 

Currently, three Maryland cities allow citizens as young as 16 to vote in local elections, while Berkeley allows voters that young to participate in school board elections. The idea is pending before the Washington, D.C., City Council.  

In Fargo, voters approved a novel voting system. They adopted "approval voting," which was used in medieval times to select popes and is sometimes used by associations to pick boards, but has never been used in American electoral politics.

Here's how it works: Everyone would vote for as many candidates as they want. If there are four candidates for the city commission, you can vote for one, two, three or all four of them. In contrast with ranked-choice voting, which has been adopted in a couple dozen cities, each vote would count the same. The person with the highest total would win.

Advocates argued that approval voting gives people more flexibility and eases worries about wasting votes on spoiler candidates who have little chance of winning. In theory, candidates with extreme viewpoints would have a harder time since the eventual winner would have to be broadly acceptable.

But when approval voting has been used, most people worry their top choice could lose since votes are spread thin and end up voting for a single candidate anyway. 

There was no organized campaign opposing the measure. (Read more about the measure here.)

Voters in Memphis, Tenn., rejected a measure placed before them by the city council to repeal ranked-choice voting, the most commonly adopted form of multiple-choice voting.

Under ranked-choice voting, people vote for various candidates in order of preference. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round, candidates are eliminated and people's second and third and subsequent choices are tabulated until one candidate comes away with a majority. Maine voters approved a ranked-choice voting system that was used for the first time this year, although not yet for state offices.

Memphis voters handily approved ranked-choice voting a decade ago, and it's set to take effect for local races next year. 

Lane County, Ore.'s ballot featured yet another potential new voting system. It's known as STAR voting, an acronym for "score then automatic runoff." It works this way: Each voter rates candidates for county offices on a scale of zero to five. An instant runoff is held between the two top finishers, and the candidate with the highest total would win.

But voters turned down the idea.

For results of state ballot measures, click here.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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