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Voters Reject Taxes, Embrace Ranked-Choice Voting Through Ballot Measures

In a busy year for ballot initiatives, Ohio voters approved abortion rights and marijuana legalization, while voters elsewhere were wary about taxes, public ownership of major assets and participatory budgeting.

The Ohio measure to guarantee reproductive rights passed with 57 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, state politicians were quick not only to denounce the result but suggest they might not abide by it.
(Megan Jelinger/AFP/TNS)
Texas voters want to pay lower property taxes and don’t want to be taxed on wealth. That was one of the clear outcomes of Tuesday’s elections, which featured the largest number of state-level ballot measures of any odd-numbered election year since 2007.

The most prominent ballot initiative was in Ohio, where voters approved an amendment to guarantee reproductive rights in the state constitution. The vote follows the approval of similar measures last year in California, Michigan and Vermont. In total, abortion rights supporters have won an unbroken streak of seven statewide victories on various ballot measures since the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade last year.

“This incredible win proves what we’ve known since Dobbs — that voters are tired of seeing their politicians fail and are prepared to take on major fights to defend reproductive freedom themselves,” said Kelly Hall, executive director of the Fairness Project, which supported the Ohio measure.

The measure passed with 57 percent of the vote. Nevertheless, Ohio politicians were quick not only to denounce the result, but also suggest they might not abide by it.

"The national abortion industry, funded by wealthy out-of-state special interests, spent millions to pass this radical language that goes far past abortion on demand,” said Matt Huffman, the president of the Ohio Senate. “This isn't the end. It is really just the beginning of a revolving door of ballot campaigns to repeal or replace Issue 1."

Measures to enshrine abortion rights have already qualified for 2024 ballots in Maryland and New York. Look for them to appear in as many as a dozen states next year.

Huffman also suggested that legislators would not let stand the results of an initiative that legalized recreational marijuana. That measure is statutory, so it would be easier to undo than the constitutional amendment on abortion. Legislators have grown more aggressive in recent years in overturning, subverting or slow-rolling measures that have been approved by voters.

Ohio was the 24th state to legalize recreational marijuana, mostly by ballot initiative. Nine states have passed legalization through the legislative process.

Against Public Ownership

Maine voters rejected a proposal to create a new publicly owned electrical company. The measure would have dissolved two existing utilities — which perhaps unsurprisingly spent roughly $40 million to defeat the idea. The measure was also opposed by Democratic Gov. Janet Mills.

Maine voters also overwhelmingly approved a measure that will make it illegal for foreign-owned companies to spend money influencing state referenda.

In Cincinnati, voters narrowly approved a measure to sell Cincinnati Southern Railway, the nation’s last municipally owned railroad, to Norfolk Southern for $1.6 billion. The proceeds will be put in a trust to be devoted to improving local infrastructure. The campaign was expensive by municipal standards, with supporters spending about $4 million promoting it.

Texas Against Taxes

The Texas Legislature spent much of this year’s session arguing over property taxes. GOP Gov. Greg Abbott made property tax relief a top priority, but state House and Senate leaders differed over how to structure a reduction. In the end, they passed an $18 billion cut, which voters then ratified on Tuesday. The homestead exemption will be increased from $40,000 to $100,000.

Texas voters also approved a measure banning wealth taxes in the state. The state does not tax wealth. On the other hand, it doesn’t tax income, either, but four years ago voters approved a ban on income taxes. Taxes on wealth or wealthy individuals have been introduced in numerous blue states this year, following the approval last year of a ballot measure in Massachusetts that raised taxes on annual incomes exceeding $1 million.

In a bit of a blow against the gerontocracy, Texas voters rejected a measure that would have raised the mandatory retirement age of state judges from 75 to 79. It was the only one of 14 measures on the Texas ballot that went down to defeat.

On Tuesday, Cincinnati voters rejected an increase on local income taxes that would have been used to fund low-income housing. Santa Fe, N.M., voters, however, approved a measure that will impose a local excise tax on the sales of homes that top $1 million.

Colorado voters rejected a complicated measure that would have reduced property taxes but also would have increased the amount of money the state could send to schools and local governments. That was viewed as an end-run around the state’s Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights, or TABOR, which mandates refunds to taxpayers when revenues increase faster than population growth and inflation. Colorado lawmakers now have to find some other way of lowering property taxes, which are expected to jump by as much as 30 percent due to rising home values.

Changes at the Local Level

Cleveland voters narrowly rejected an initiative that promised to create a “people’s budget,” allowing residents to propose and either or approve or reject projects amounting to $14 million, or 2 percent of the city’s budget. The measure faced opposition from the city council and police and fire unions.

Spokane, Wash., voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to criminalize homeless encampments that are within 1,000 feet of schools, parks, playgrounds and child care centers. The new law will be challenged in court. If it survives, it will apply to nearly all the downtown, which critics warned would mean pushing homeless individuals out into neighborhoods.

Ranked-choice voting continued its winning streak, with three Michigan cities — Kalamazoo, East Lansing and Royal Oak — adopting the method. Under ranked-choice voting (RCV), winners must receive a majority of the vote. If no one takes a majority during the first round, voters’ second and third choices are tabulated until a majority winner is chosen.

Voters in Minnetonka, Minn., rejected a measure that would have abolished RCV, which they’d first approved in 2020. Easthampton, Mass., voters approved an expansion of RCV to include more city council seats.

“American voters are dissatisfied with our politics, and in 27 city ballot measures in a row, they’ve said yes to better choices, better campaigns and better representation,” said Deb Otis, research and policy director at FairVote, which promotes RCV. “We’ll continue this progress ... in 2024, when at least Oregon and Nevada will vote on adopting RCV statewide.”
Alan Greenblatt is the editor of Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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