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Policing, Pot, Housing and the ‘Right to Food’: Which Ballot Measures Passed

Republicans and Democrats weren’t the only ones on the ballot this Tuesday. Issues of policing, housing and clean energy were put before voters too.

Voters exit a community center after casting their ballots during municipal elections Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, in Minneapolis, where a ballot measure to abolish the police department and replace it with a new department of public safety was defeated.
(David Joles/Minneapolis Star Tribune/TNS)
The results of candidate contests from Tuesday's elections clearly favored Republicans. The story from a broad range of ballot measures was more mixed, however, when it comes to determining whether the country is in a more conservative or liberal mood. There were results to please or displease both sides.

Considering policing, Minneapolis voters were given the chance to abolish the city’s police department, replacing it with a new department of public safety that would have used a “comprehensive public health approach.” The ballot measure would also have eliminated the city’s minimum police funding requirement.

Its failure was taken by conservatives that attacking the police was a losing political strategy, even in the city where George Floyd was murdered by an officer last year, triggering a national debate about policing. “Defund the Police is dead,” tweeted Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost. “In Minneapolis, the Home of Defund, the voters say NO.”

Conversely, however, Austin voters rejected a measure that would have expanded its police force, requiring the city to have two patrol officers available for every 1,000 residents. The city had scaled down its police force in an attempt to take a broader approach to public safety. “This election reaffirms our community’s belief that public safety for all requires a comprehensive system that includes properly staffing our police, but also our fire, EMS and mental health responses as well,” said Mayor Steve Adler.

In Cleveland, meanwhile, voters approved a measure to create a civilian review board to investigate police misconduct. “This charter passing will be the downfall of Cleveland,” Jeff Follmer, president of the Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association, told local TV station WOIO. “Look forward to beating this in court.”

The scattered nature of ballot measures around the country makes it difficult to read too much into the results in terms of voters’ overall preferences. In Colorado alone, voters simultaneously voted down a proposal to increase sales taxes on recreational marijuana while also rejecting a measure that would have lowered some property tax rates.

Washington state voters rejected a nonbinding measure to recommend a tax of 7 percent on capital gains above $250,000. New Jersey voters rejected a measure that would have expanded betting on college sports, while approving an amendment to allow charities to collect money from raffles or bingo. Texas voters approved a measure that will specifically allow two rodeo associations to hold charity raffles at their events.

Texas voters also passed an amendment to ban any government limits on religious services, a reaction to restrictions on in-person services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Minimum wage increases are generally popular with voters everywhere they’re on the ballot. On Tuesday, Tucson residents approved a gradual increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.

Rejecting Voting Reforms

Voters typically support measures that make voting easier or overhaul the redistricting process. That turned out not to be the case in New York.

New York has long had some of the most restrictive voting and registration laws in the country. The Democratic-controlled Legislature has sought to change that, passing bills to allow no-excuse absentee voting and same-day voter registration in both 2019 and 2021. They also sought to streamline the redistricting process, moving to simple-majority approval rather than requiring two-thirds votes in support of new maps.

Voters still had to approve these changes to the state constitution, however, and on Tuesday they voted no. Democrats – who had seen success with voting reforms elsewhere and in New York City – appeared to become complacent, while Republicans campaigned hard against the measures, including heavy advertising in upstate New York.

All the measures lost by more than 60 percent of the vote.

"The failure of Propositions 1, 3 and 4 is a black eye for democracy,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause in New York. “Anti-democracy forces are drowning out common-sense reforms with fear mongering scare tactics, and voters are listening.”

Progressives did score a win with another New York ballot measure, an “environmental rights amendment” that provides a constitutional right to clean air, water and an undefined “healthful environment.” Legislative Republicans complained that its language was too vague and wanted to see what enabling legislation might look like, but the measure took 69 percent of the vote.

“The amendment will be a powerful tool for protecting communities throughout the state,” according to the National Resources Defense Council. “This amendment is especially important to protect New Yorkers who live in low-income communities and communities of color, as these are the places that tend to have the highest levels of air pollution and water contamination.”

Montana and Pennsylvania have older “green amendments” in their constitutions.

On Tuesday, Maine voters approved the nation’s first “right to food” amendment. It will give small producers and indeed all individuals the “right to grow, raise, harvest, produce and consume the food of their own choosing for their own nourishment, sustenance, bodily health and well-being.”

Opponents worried about the potential threat to health and safety regulations, but the measure passed easily. “Food is life,” said Democratic state Sen. Craig Hickman. “I don’t understand why anyone would be afraid of saying so out loud in the constitution.”

Maine voters, meanwhile, rejected an effort to build a connection to carbon emission-free hydropower in Quebec. Utilities spent $90 million promoting the measure to protect their $1 billion project — making it easily the year's most expensive ballot campaign — but it was voted down, 60 to 40 percent.

Known as the New England Clean Energy Corridor, the project attracted the wrath of some residents because it cut through a swath of forest. The fact that it would move Canadian hydropower drew some antagonism from the fossil fuel industry for bringing in competition. Fox News host Tucker Carlson even attacked the project as a “plot” and a “scam” that would endanger an American forest in the interest of foreign companies.

The vote against the project does not mean it is dead. If two-thirds of the Legislature vote in support, it could still move forward. Given that construction is well underway, there could also be a legal challenge mounted to cessation of the project. Environmental-minded supporters of the project highlight that it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3.5 million metric tons per year.

However, the result also highlights how difficult the transition to clean energy will be in the United States, where the legal and political systems give outsized voice to opponents of infrastructure projects. “In the ongoing battle of NIMBYs vs. a livable future for humanity, NIMBYs have won yet another round,” wrote climate journalist David Roberts.

Mixed Results on Housing Measures

In Maine’s largest city, a battle over the future of homeless shelters reached an anticlimactic conclusion.

Portland’s efforts to build a large new 208-bed emergency housing facility on the outskirts of town — after an earlier site was blocked due to neighborhood backlash — received voter approval despite an opposition campaign that proposed small shelter sites throughout the city.

Voters could choose between limiting shelters to 50 beds, which proponents said would be better for unhoused individuals, but officials said that would cause further delay amid inevitable opposition. Other options included a limit of 150 shelter beds or no change at all. Voters ultimately sided with city policymakers, and plans for the large shelter can move forward.

In the Twin Cities, both Minneapolis and St. Paul voters approved initiatives to allow for rent control regulations. As housing prices have surged across the nation, especially in large cities, the idea of government controls on rents has gained in popularity. In Boston, newly elected mayor Michelle Wu campaigned on the idea as well.

In Minneapolis, voter approval will simply allow city policymakers to start crafting specific legislation to establish rent regulations. But in St. Paul, rent increases will be capped at 3 percent each year beginning 2022, and without exemptions for new construction or inflation. Housing industry watchers argued that the initiatives should be a wake-up call that more aggressive action is needed to add supply, addressing challenges in the longer run.

In Boulder, Colo., a different effort to relieve housing pressures suffered defeat. A grassroots “Bedrooms Are For People” campaign has been in the works to allow more unrelated people to live together legally in the city. Last year, in Denver, the City Council voted to increase occupancy levels from two to five unrelated people. Without similar support from city policymakers, organizers in Boulder hoped to push their own city toward a broader vision of legal occupancy.

Currently, Boulder sets occupancy limits based on zoning categories, with only three or four unrelated people allowed to live together, no matter the number of bedrooms in a house. The ballot initiative would allow as many people to legally live together as there are bedrooms in a home.

“The law is really archaic in how it prevents people from using homes, and a home in Boulder is such a scarce resource,” Eric Budd, a pro-initiative organizer, told the Colorado Sun last spring. “So it really allows more flexibility in housing options overall, which benefits the whole community.”

But Boulder voters resoundingly defeated the idea at the polls, even as Denver voters equally decisively supported preserving their city council’s law to expand occupancy limits.
Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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