State Progressive Victories from November 2008's Election

State Progressive Victories from Tuesday's Election

Beyond federal victories for progressives, November 4th was in multiple ways a resounding victory for progressives at the state level.  

  • First, with President-Elect Obama's experience as a state legislator, state leaders will hopefully have an ally in the White House who understands the challenges they face and the need for a federal partner to make state innovation effective. 
  • Second, even after large gains in state legislatures for progressives in 2006 and 2007, Tuesday saw additional legislative gains, with new progressive leadership taking control of number of key state chambers. 
  • Third, the results show a nationalization of politics where state election results, good and bad, tended to follow the trend in Presidential voting.
  • Fourth, with a few important exceptions, right wing ballot initiatives were overwhelmingly defeated across the country, and a number of progressive initiatives were enacted into law.
  • Finally, with new voters streaming to the polls, using tools like mail-in voting and same-day registration, progressives are seeing the fruit of years of struggle to eliminate hurdles that have suppressed voter turnout for too many decades.

For a look at PSN's earlier overview of the ballot initiative landscape, see this previous Stateside Dispatch.

Changes in the Statehouses

The bottom-line results for the night were that progressives took control of new legislative chambers in two of the largest states in the country, New York and Ohio, along with additional chambers in Wisconsin, Delaware and Nevada-- and created new ties in the Montana House and Alaska Senate, both previously controlled by the GOP.  And depending on how final races and negotiations among legislators play out, the Texas House might shift out of the control of conservative GOP leader Tom Craddick.   Conversely, the Democrats lost control of both chambers in Tennessee, the Oklahoma Senate and the Senate in Montana.  But Democrats also gained increased majorities in states including Connecticut, Washington, the Michigan House and the Oregon House.   And the Democrats had a net gain of one Governorship in Missouri. 

And the result of elections over the last few cycles means that Democrats are now in control of sixty chambers (give or take one or two as final results come in), with sixteen "trifecta" states in which they control both chambers and the Governor's office.

So what does this mean by region?

In the Northeast: With the Democratic takeover of the New York Senate, every legislature in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic -- save one chamber in Pennsylvania -- is now in Democratic control. 

  • For the first time since 1935, Democrats will control both legislative chambers and the governor's office in New York-- potentially ending a generation of legislative gridlock.  Republicans are courting four more conservative Democrats in the hopes of retaining their power.  If they fail to do that we expect a wave of GOP resignations to follow the election.  Switched control of the Senate should drive reform of the legislative process and passage of stalled legislation such as green jobs, paid family leave, comprehensive criminal justice reform, and affordable housing reform. 
  • There has been some initial speculation that Maine and New Hampshire chambers would shift to Republican control, but in Maine, Democrats are poised to increase their one-seat majority in the Senate and maintain their strong majority in the House. Despite a couple of possible recounts, Democrats have increased their Senate Majority to 20, with Republicans holding 15 seats. Democrats made similar gains in the House and will control the chamber with a 96 to 54 majority.  The Secretary of State says voter turnout could have been as high as 85%, a new record for Maine, which consistently logs among the highest turnouts in the country.  
  • In New Hampshire the Union Leader is projecting Democrats will maintain their slim majority in the State Senate and control of the House.  The New Hampshire Senate also became the first legislative chamber ever to have a majority of women members.  (Although this is offset by the South Carolina Senate, which has become the only all-male state Senate in the country.)

In the Midwest:  Progressives continued to make gains at the state level throughout the midwest:

  • In Ohio, Democrats retook control of the House for the first time in 14 years, after years of conservative dominance of both chambers blocking reforms ranging from paid sick days to labor rights.
  • In Wisconsin, Democrats are projected to take control of the House with a slim majority for the first time in 14 years. Combined with control of the Senate and the Governorship, Wisconsin has the potential to become the first state to guarantee health care for all its residents.  Healthy Wisconsin, a bold health care reform initiative that passed the Senate in 2007, was rejected by the Republican-controlled Assembly, will now get a more positive welcome in the Assembly.  
  • In another pickup for Democrats, Missourians chose Attorney General Jay Nixon for Governor.  While he will no doubt be an improvement in a number of policy areas, he has supported GOP-led attacks on immigrants, including stricter employer sanctions

In the South:  Progressive losses were concentrated in the South on Tuesday, although largely in two states Obama lost heavily, Tennessee and Oklahoma, reflecting the increasing link between state and national voting trends.

  • While North Carolina did elect its first female Governor, Lt. Gov. Beverly Purdue, a Democrat, to replace outgoing Democratic Governor Mike Easley, she is more conservative than him in many ways.  For example, she opposes allowing undocumented students to attend community college, which Easley had supported, and supports expanding the 287g program which deputizes local law enforcement officials to act as immigration authorities.
  • Winning 50 seats in the state legislature, Republicans in Tennessee took control of the General Assembly for the first time in state history, with a one-seat majority in the House Senate and a slim three-seat majority in the Senate. Last year Democrats held the House and the Senate was tied with one independent, which allowed the House to put checks on the most virulently conservative bills. Now the floodgates may open on reactionary legislation unless Democratic Governor Phil Bredensen is willing to wield his veto powers. 
  • Over the last few years Oklahoma's legislature has come to be controlled by strongly conservative members, with a tie between the two parties in the Senate being the last remaining check on the right wing in the Oklahoma legislature, such as preventing the passage of a voter ID bill in the last session.  Oklahoma is far more likely to program regressive policies, with new Senate co-leader Glenn Coffee declaring that the new majority is “going to change Oklahoma,” by immediately beginning to pushing a pro business, pro tort reform, "pro family" agenda.

In the West:

  • Washington Democratic Governor Christine Gregoire won re-election with a margin big enough to put her narrow 133-vote win in 2004 behind her.  Democrats retained control in the House and Senate with expanded majorities.  Now, Washington, which already has been a progressive leader, has the potential to take even bolder action on issues ranging from the environment to labor rights to health care. Similarly, Oregon's House expanded its Democratic membership to supermajority levels.
  • The Nevada Senate joined the Nevada House under Democratic control on Tuesday, strengthening the likelihood of sending stronger progressive legislation to the desk of the Republican governor, where vetos may be the chief obstacle to progressive reforms.
  • Montana Democrats appear to have lost control of the state Senate, although they have made gains in the previously GOP-controlled House. Governor Brian Schweitzer, a leading progressive on many issues, was reelected with over 60% of the vote. 

One other result of note was voters' ousting of two state Supreme Court judges.   In Michigan the Supreme Court Chief Justice who had the strong backing of business interests was defeated by a little known pro-consumer challenger.  This was a major loss for the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who have been fighting for control of state supreme courts around the country.  Michigan in particular has been ground zero in this protracted battle, and this year's contest was no different.  The race was labeled by Justice at Stake as the dirtiest judicial campaign this election because of the vicious negative advertising used by both sides.  On the other hand, in Mississippi, a Supreme Court Judge who was often the sole dissenter from pro-business decisions was defeated.

Progressive Initiative Victories & A Few Defeats

On election night, voters delivered a resounding message of rebuke to rightwing state ballot measures alongside a more limited message of support for progressive initiatives. Perhaps the clearest message was the emphatic rejection of corporate excess evidenced by a wide-ranging rejection of anti-union, anti-tax and anti-regulatory measures.

  • In Colorado, a hotly contested "right to work" initiative was soundly defeated, as was a "paycheck deception" initiative designed to cripple union funding.  Unfortunately, a deceptively styled "anti-corruption" bill was apparently approved in Colorado.  If upheld by the courts, the bill could cripple political participation by public employee unions.  A similar measure in South Dakota was defeated. In Oregon, an initiative to undermine teacher seniority systems was also soundly defeated.
  • Anti-government tax measures were defeated overwhelmingly in Massachusetts, North Dakota and Oregon.   In all three states, proposed measures that would have slashed or, in the case of Massachusetts, completely eliminated the income tax were rejected at the polls. 
  • In addition, both Ohio and Arizona voters defeated measures, backed by the predatory lending industry, that sought to roll back pay day loan reforms.

Defeating Anti-Abortion Measures, but Losses on Gay Rights: Three different measures to restrict access to abortions and a woman's right to choose were defeated on Tuesday. For the third time California voters defeated a measure that would have required parental notification and imposed a waiting period on minors seeking an abortion.  South Dakota voters, who repealed an outright ban on abortions two years ago, rejected an even less restrictive ban that would have provided exceptions in instances of rape, incest and pregnancies that threatened the health or life of the mother.  The rejection in consecutive elections suggests that support for choice is solidifying in the state.  And, in Colorado, voters soundly rejected a measure that would have criminalized abortion by defining "personhood" as beginning at the moment of fertilization.

In one of the most negative political results of the night, gay citizens and same-sex couples continue to lose basic rights at the hands of voters.  Voters in Arizona, California, and Florida approved constitutional amendments banning same-sex marriage.  The California vote overturns a ruling issued by the State Supreme Court, earlier this year, providing same-sex couples the right to marry.  Similarly, in Arkansas, a state that already leaves hundreds of children ambling through a foster care system, often never to be placed in a permanent home, voters approved a ban on adoption or foster parenting for unmarried couples.  The ban effectly prevents same-sex and opposite-sex couples from providing loving homes to children in need.  

Health Care:  Voter support for health care reform was evident across the country:

  • Montana voters approved Initiative 155, Healthy Montana Kids, which will expand access to most of the state's 35,000 uninsured children through a combination of state and federal funds.
  • In Wisconsin, 22 local ballot questions, organized by Citizen Action of Wisconsin and other advocates calling on lawmakers to enact guaranteed and affordable health care for all residents by the end of 2009, passed overwhelmingly, capturing 74% of the vote across the 22 communities. The health care referenda provide a mandate for lawmakers to act on health care, and, specifically, to act on Healthy Wisconsin, enacted by the Wisconsin Senate in 2007 but stalled by the then Republican-led Assembly. 
  • Voters in Arizona appear on the verge of rejecting, a constitutional amendment, pushed by conservatives, that could have prevented a mandatory universal health care system by disallowing laws mandating the purchase of health care.  Opponents to the measure said it was too poorly worded and pontetially could have tied the hands of lawmakers in their efforts to address the state's health care crisis.
  • In Missouri, voters approved Proposition B which creates a Quality Home Care Council to better connect those needing care with caregivers through a statewide workforce registry. The measure aims to reduce worker turnover and will also allow home health workers to unionize. 
  • Voters in Washington overwhelmingly approved Measure 1029 to provide statewide training, testing and certification of long-term care workers by the state. 
  • Voters in Michigan narrowly approved Initiative 2 which will ease restrictions on embryonic stem cell research and, supporters say, open doors to bring in millions of dollars for the state's medical research apparatus.
  • One of the only negative health care results was Maine voters' repeal of new funding, including new alcohol and soda taxes, for the state's groundbreaking health coverage program, DirigoChoice.  The program provides comprehensive and reduced-cost health care to 18,000 Maine families and small businesses.  The prior funding source, which is perennially fought in the courts, will remain in effect.

Victories on Environmental and Transit Projects: Facing extreme climate change and rising fuel prices, energy conservation, transit and renewable energy issues became popular state ballot measures.  While many succeeded, a few failed, largely where progressive advocates were divided over the the effectiveness of particular initiatives.

  • Voters in Missouri passed Proposition C, by a 66% to 15% margin.  The Proposition requires that the three Missouri investor-owned electric utilities purchase at least 15% of their electricity from renewable and clean energy sources.
  • Minnesota voters passed the Clean Water, Land and Legacy Amendment, which raises the state sales tax three-eights of one percent, raising an estimated $300 million a year to restore wetlands, forests, lakes, parks and cultural heritage sites throughout the state.
  • Both of California’s two major transit ballot initiatives barely achieved victories.  First, voters said “full steam ahead” to Proposition 1A, which will appropriate $9.95 billion of general obligation bonds to fund a $40 billion, 800-mile high speed train between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Los Angeles County's Measure R will increase sales tax a half-cent to raise $40 billion over thirty years for major transit investments.
  • In Rhode Island voters approved a measure to allow the state to borrow $87 million as a means to improve the states transportation infrastructure.  Projects that will receive funding include making repairs, building bridges and highways, replacing public buses and extending a commuter rail line.
  • Voters in the Puget Sound counties of Washington approved a massive $22.8 billion transit expansion package, funded by a .5% increase in the sales tax, that will improve and expand bus and rail service. 
  • In Alaska voters authorized the sale of up to $315 million in state government bonds for more than two dozen transportation projects around the state.  Lawmakers approved the package last April after sprinkling it with road construction projects around the state to broaden voter appeal.
  • Two California ballot measures that would dramatically expand the research, funding, and generation of renewable energy and alternative fuels failed.  The first, Proposition 7, called on all utilities, including government-owned utilities, to generate 20% of their power from renewable energy by 2010, 40% by 2020 and 50% by 2025. Proposition 7 did not garner enough votes largely because it faced opposition from some renewable energy groups and the California Democratic Party, who called the measure well-meaning but ill-conceived.  California Proposition 10, which also failed, would have offered rebates for cars and trucks that burn natural gas or alternative fuels and funnelled state funds towards renewable energy research — with a focus on solar technology. 
  • Colorado voters also rejected Amendment 58, which would have raised state taxes on the the booming oil and gas industry industry — with an estimated $321 million in new money flowing in by the 2010 budget year — by eliminating a long-standing exemption the industry takes on the property taxes companies pay to local governments, school districts and fire districts.  The new money would have created the Colorado Promise Scholarship Fund, more than doubled the state's financial aid funding, funded wildlife habitat preservation and helped to restore local roads and water systems overloaded by oil and natural gas development. 
  • In Florida, Amendment 3 which would make home improvements that provide renewable energy or harden homes against hurricanes exempt from the home's assessed value  passed with 60.4% of the vote. However, since Constitutional amendments must receive 60% of votes to be enacted, a victory by less than half of a percentage point will trigger an automatic recall.

Notably, two rightwing measures cloaked in transit improvement language, were defeated:

  • Washington voters rejected Initiative 985, which would have made several changes to state transportation policy, including wide-open hours for car pool lanes, restrictions on tolling and new rules for money gleaned from red-light cameras. Specifically, I-985 would have opened High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes to people driving alone during non-rush hours and diverted a slice of state automobile sales taxes toward traffic-relief projects. 
  • In Colorado, Amendment 52,  a proposal to funnel millions of dollars from severance taxes into transportation projects failed after a coalition of organizations including the Colorado Progressive Coaltion opposed the measure. 

Mixed outcomes on Immigration and Anti-Affirmative Action Measures:  While immigration has been the hot topic in this politically charged election season, there were surprisingly few initiatives that made it onto the ballot.  Of the initiatives on the ballot most were defeated.

  • Oregon Measure 58, which would have prohibited teaching non-English-speaking public school students in a language other than English for more than two years, failed. The proposition was widely opposed by teachers’ groups and immigrant rights advocates.
  • Missouri did pass a mostly meaningless "English only" measure which states that English is the official language for government meetings. This will not produce any changes to the current status quo.
  • A final measure, Arizona's Prop 202, failed to pass. It would have weakened the existing employer sanctions, but added penalties for ID theft against undocumented workers.
  • In an example of a race where immigration drove the debate, Lou Barletta, the staunchly anti-immigrant mayor of Hazelton, Pennsylvania, lost his challenge to incumbent Democratic Congressman Paul Kanjorski, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of his anti-immigrant platform for voters interestedin real solutions to the increasingly gloomy economic outlook.

Ward Connerly's campaign to profit from passing affirmative action bans is ongoing.  Nebraskans passed an affirmative action ban but it is facing a court challenge from those who question the validity of the signatures gathered to place the measure on the ballot. Ward Connerly, who sponsored a similar measure in Colorado, has had measures in other states thrown off the ballot for defrauding signatories. The Colorado measure is still too close to call, but would cripple diversity efforts at public universities and hurt programs to help woman and minority owned businesses. If it doesn’t pass, Colorado would be the first state to reject an affirmative action ban.

Election Reform:  Voters continue to support measures to reform the voting process:

  • In Maryland, voters overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment that will allow early voting for the two weeks prior to an election.  Given the complementary roles early voting plays in both increasing turnout and reducing pressure on polling places on election day, Maryland voters will be well served by this new voting option.  The change is expected to have the largest positive impact on young and low-income voters, who are traditionally under-represented at the polls.
  • Connecticut approved a proposal to permit 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election when they will turn 18 by the date of the general election.
  • While it is still close, with 95% of precincts reporting it appears that Californians have chosen to implement non-partisan apportionment of their legislative districts [though it only leads by about 100k votes].  The proposal, sponsored by Common Cause of California and strongly supported by the governor, created a rift in the progressive community when civil rights groups decided that they could not support the measure without more robust protections for voting rights.  Prop 11 creates a 14 member independent redistricting commission which will use objective criteria and transparent processes to draw election district boundaries for state legislators and members of congress.  This reform should give momentum to similar redistricting reform efforts in other states.

A Few Other Notable Initiatives

  • By voter fiat, Washington is now the second state to allow lethal prescriptions to terminally ill patients.
  • In the City of Milwaukee, voters overwhelming approved a binding referendum requiring employers in the city to provide paid sick days to employees, becoming the third city in the country to do so. In Milwaukee County, voters also approved an advisory referendum to raise the sales tax by 1% to increase funding for parks and transit and to reduce property taxes. 
  • California voters rejected decriminalizing the possession of marijuana, Massachusetts voters approved a similar measure,and Michigan voters approved a medical marijuana proposal.

High Turnout, the Fruit of Election Reforms, Drove Progressive Victories

While final figures won’t be available for several days, it is clear that voter turnout was higher than every election since at least 1960 when John F Kennedy was elected.  Depending on how you calculate the number, it may have been the highest turnout of eligible voters since 1908!  It is clear that this increase in voters was the engine behind Barack Obama’s victory as well as the many important state-level victories throughout the nation.

Beyond the raw numbers, the composition of the electorate showed significant changes from 2004, with a higher percentage of minority voters and progressive voters coming to the polls. Early numbers suggest that young voters outperformed their turnout in the last presidential election. Even more importantly for progressives, they voted for progressive candidates in substantially higher numbers than in 2004, forming a critical element in the coalition that gave Obama and many other progressive candidates and issues support.

Key to this high turnout were election reforms, from mail-in and early voting to registration reforms that made voting easier.  After many election cycles in which conservatives got the best of progressives in early voting, 2008 saw a dramatic reversal with Democratic early voting far surpassing that of Republicans in several close states.  Both Florida and North Carolina saw big increases in early voting that was skewed toward Democrats.  Those patterns account for the margin of victory for President Elect Obama in both states.  It is clear that progressives are taking the initiative to get out the early vote and it is paying significant dividends.

In Colorado, election officials faced no major problems on election day, unlike 2006 when voting machine problems caused lines of up to eight hours in Denver.  Since then, the state has embraced mail-in voting with the implementation of permanent absentee balloting.  Early voting increased by two-thirds over 2004, reaching almost 65% of all votes, and appears to have greatly contributed to a lack of problems on November 4th.

Even this close to the election, it is already clear that reforms to expand the electorate and protect the right of citizens to vote have proven themselves a key tool to institutionalize and expand progressive majorities at the ballot box in the future.


NCSL, Ballot Measures, Initiatives on State Ballots
Energy Ballot Initiatives Around the Nation
Increasing Democracy: Ballot Initiatives 2008
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center (BISC)
NCSL, Ballot Measures Database