Politics & Policy

Midterm Ballot Initiatives Matter, Too

Sign outside a polling place during early voting in McAllen, Texas, October 22, 2018. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
While the world’s attention is understandably fixed on the fight for Congress, Election Day will also see hundreds of consequential measures put before voters.

We are now less than two weeks away from what promise to be enormously consequential midterm elections. Most of the attention so far has understandably been focused on the battle for control of Congress. That contest, according to current polls, is likely to end up in something of a draw, with Democrats taking control of the House while Republicans pick up a couple of seats in the Senate. There will also be important down-ballot races, with Democrats expected to pick up several governorships and make limited gains in state legislatures.

Often overlooked, however, will be several important ballot measures that could have a far more direct impact on people’s lives than the high-profile races that receive all the news coverage.

For instance, despite President Trump’s bizarre assertion that Congress will pass a middle-class tax cut in the next two weeks, congressional action on taxes is not happening any time soon. But in six states, voters will have the opportunity to cap, limit, or restrict taxes.

Arizona voters will consider whether to prohibit new or increased taxes on real-estate transactions, banking, investment management, health care, and other services.

In Florida, voters will vote on two anti-tax measures. The first would make permanent a 10 percent cap on property taxes that is currently set to expire next year. The second would require a two-thirds supermajority in both chambers of the legislature to raise taxes.

Oregon voters will also have the chance to impose a supermajority requirement for new taxes, in this case, three-fifths rather than two-thirds. What’s more, Oregonians will vote on whether to prohibit both state and local governments from taxing groceries. A similar ban on grocery taxes (applying to just local governments) will also be on the ballot in Washington.

In North Carolina, voters will decide whether to cut the top state-income-tax rate from 10 to 7 percent. Even in the liberal bastion of California, voters will choose whether to require public approval of any future increase in gas taxes or vehicle fees.

It won’t just be taxes on the ballot, of course. Four states will decide whether to join the growing movement for marijuana legalization. North Dakota and Michigan could become the tenth and eleventh states to legalize recreational marijuana, while Missouri and Utah may legalize medical marijuana. Meanwhile, Ohio will consider a far-reaching criminal-justice-reform measure that would reduce drug-possession offenses to misdemeanors, limit incarceration for non-criminal probation violations, and encourage inmates to participate in rehabilitative care, work, or educational programs. Savings from reduced incarceration rates would be redirected to drug-treatment programs.

Arizona could also expand its groundbreaking school-choice program, which is already a model for the rest of the nation.

Not every ballot measure is a step in the right direction, however. Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, and Utah will vote on whether to expand their Medicaid programs. Those measures are liable to prove costly — Medicaid is already the fastest-growing part of most state budgets — without significantly improving health outcomes for low-income residents.

Two states, Arkansas and Missouri, are also likely to approve an increase in the minimum wage. Such measures almost always prove popular with voters but often end up hurting the poorest and most vulnerable, whose jobs may be eliminated, outsourced, or automated as employment costs escalate.

But the prize for perhaps the worst ballot idea goes — naturally — to California, which will vote on whether to allow local communities to impose rent control. Approval can be guaranteed to benefit the wealthy and middle class while reducing the availability of rental housing for the poor. It’s almost as if the measure’s supporters had never glimpsed an economics textbook.

Altogether, voters in 37 states will vote on more than 150 measures concerning everything from abortion to the environment, from the regulation of electric monopolies to a proposal in Massachusetts to limit the number of patients nurses may serve.

With millions of dollars in attack ads flowing back and forth at the congressional or gubernatorial levels, these ballot measures may slide under the radar. They will almost certainly fail to receive breathless coverage from panels of reporters on election night. But, for good or ill, they will matter to millions of Americans. Voters should pay attention.

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