On Tuesday, voters around the nation, still reeling from an extraordinary economic downturn, voiced their strong displeasure by voting out an historic number of incumbent officeholders. State lawmakers were not spared in this national wave, as an older, more conservative, and less diverse electorate unhappy with both parties voted out hundreds of legislators. The result was nineteen state chambers flipping from Democratic to Republican control in an election fueled largely by continued discontent with the state of the economy.
The exit poll data from Tuesday shows clearly that this seemingly massive endorsement of right-wing candidates does not in any way reflect an endorsement of right-wing policies. Voters who came to the polls on Election Day voiced their disapproval of both parties. Exit polls showed the Democratic Party receiving almost exactly the same approval ratings as the Republican Party, despite an electorate that saw progressive-leaning demographic groups turn out in lower numbers than usual. In addition, the percentage of voters who thought deficit reduction should be the highest priority for Congress (39%) was nearly the same as those who said more government investment in jobs should be the top item on the agenda (37%). As the Pew Research Center wrote in their post-election analysis, "the outcome of this year's election represented a repudiation of the political status quo, rather than a vote of confidence in the GOP or a statement of support for its policies."
Despite massive, unprecedented amounts of corporate money spent on campaign ads, voters pinned the blame for the nation's economic situation primarily on Wall Street and the previous Presidential administration. Despite a national media narrative that claimed voters do not value government services, voters in Colorado and Massachusetts soundly rejected draconian anti-tax initiatives that would have harmed their states' economies. Despite oil companies spending millions to increase profits, California voters soundly rejected an effort to repeal a climate law that is a model for the green economy. Despite continued anti-immigrant campaign rhetoric, many candidates succeeded by building coalitions that stood strong against such fear-mongering. And, despite some efforts to preemptively roll back workers' rights, other candidates successfully ran for office ran with a message that promoted work-family balance.
If there is a lesson from this election, it is that enacting policies that positively affect people's lives matters. Voters worried about losing their jobs and houses are likely to lash out against those who currently hold power, even if that means they end up voting for the very people who obstructed efforts that would have increased economic growth. The only way to ensure progressive political success is to continue to work to enact progressive policies that reflect our shared values to make a difference in the lives of voters: rewarding work, helping families, promoting equal opportunity and justice, and ensuring the continued health of our economy, our democracy, and our communities.
Economic frustration dominated ballot outcomes in this week's polls. Clearly, the lingering impacts of the recession -- high unemployment, wage stagnation, and financial insecurity -- have placed enormous pressure on working and middle class families. Moreover, although federal taxes are at their lowest level in decades, debilitating economic pain and a fervent and insidious conservative messaging campaign has fueled growing anti-tax sentiment.
Voters in traditionally conservative states enacted measures to restrict the ability of local and state government to generate revenue. In Indiana, voters approved a constitutional property tax limit. Missourians approved Proposition A to require the St. Louis and Kansas City electorate to vote on the continued use of the earnings tax, which comprises an extremely substantial portion of both cities' general fund revenues. Unfortunately, Washingtonians rejected an initiative to create a high-end income tax in their state, which currently employs the most regressive tax structure in the nation.
Fortunately, there were a number of relatively positive developments. For instance, California voters approved a measure to end the state's onerous two-thirds legislative majority requirement to pass budget or other appropriations-related issues other than tax increases. In Colorado, voters overwhelmingly rejected a slew of heinous proposals that would have decimated state and local budgets by reducing income and property taxes to unsustainable levels and would have led to a loss of over 70,000 jobs. Massachusetts voters rejected an initiative to repeal a recent sales tax increase, which would have significantly increased the state's budget deficit to $5 billion. Voters across the country also approved bond measures that will allow state governments to borrow to fund essential infrastructure development projects.
The takeaway is that the elections do not reflect support for the Right Wing's anti-government agenda. As noted above, exit polling from Tuesday showed that the number of voters who prioritized greater government investments in jobs was equal to those who favored cutting deficits.
Though tax and budget ballot outcomes were generally mixed, the major conclusion is that voters are seeking action to alleviate economic pain. To this end, job creation must be the top priority for lawmakers in the coming session. As Progressive States Network has documented in the past, federal and state governments must pursue bold job creation measures, enact progressive fiscal policy, and invest in necessary public structures as a means to ensure growth. Moving forward, transparency and accountability of state spending will additionally be a critical component of recovery as a means to protect taxpayers, promote sound fiscal practices, and encourage a more focused budget process.
2010 Midterms Highlight Lack of Disclosure in Independent Political Spending
The impact of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on this year's election cycle is clear - 2010 will be remembered as the year of the costliest and least transparent midterm election in history. Citizens United, which gave corporations, unions, and independent groups the go-ahead to inundate elections with as much money as they pleased, has helped shatter previous midterm spending records. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, third-party groups like Crossroads GPS and American Future Fund spent nearly $300 million in the run-up to Election Day, more than what has been spent in every other midterm cycle since 1990 combined. Unsurprisingly, conservatives benefited from shadowy, undisclosed spending by a 6-to-1 margin among groups that failed to disclose the source of their money ($59 million to $10 million).
Though the staggering amount of money spent to sway the election is enough cause for concern, a glut of funding will not necessarily guarantee outcomes - as Carly Fiorina, Meg Whitman, Linda McMahon, and 2/3 of defeated Democratic House candidates discovered. The biggest cause for concern is the fact that 42% of outside spending came from undisclosed donors, leaving voters without the benefit of knowledge through transparency. Knowing which billionaires are attempting to influence races through third-party groups in order to further their own agenda is key to making informed decisions at the polls. While the composition of next year's Congress makes federal level disclosure reforms more and more unlikely, Progressive States Network will be mobilizing legislators and advocates to enact meaningful reform on the state level.
Redistricting Initiatives: Three States Pave the Way for Democracy
Voters in California, Minnesota and Florida gave overwhelming support to ballot initiatives that will help reduce the amount of partisan gerrymandering in redistricting. Bob Edgar, president of Common Cause, remarked, "This is a big win for holding government accountable to the people."
California's Prop 20, which sought to eliminate the state's forthcoming independent redistricting commission, was soundly rejected as voters simultaneously approved rival Prop 27, which expands the scope of the commission to include the reapportionment of Congressional districts.
In Minnesota, voters approved a referendum to remove political parties from the redistricting process. Instead, judges will appoint people to the commission using an application process.
Floridians approved two ballot amendments that set new rules for redistricting. Legislative and Congressional districts must be equal in population, amongst other requirements, and cannot be drawn to favor or disfavor incumbents or political parties.
Though the U.S. is the only Western democracy that allows incumbents to draw their own political districts, these three states are pioneering a new model that, hopefully, will mark the start of a trend toward giving people the representation that they deserve.
Environmental Policy: A Sound Win and a Silent Loss in California
California voters overwhelmingly opposed Proposition 23, a measure that would have suspended California's prominent anti-pollution law (AB 32). The vote signals that the state is willing to continue on a path toward a sustainable, clean energy economy through green businesses and jobs, rather than wait until the economy turns around without energy efficiency measures. A Los Angeles Times poll indicated that opposition to Proposition 23 even came from moderate and liberal Republicans. The vote reflects across-the-board support for businesses that generate renewable sources of energy, cut consumer's utilities costs, and reverse the environmental impact of climate change.
As the Progressive States Network has previously highlighted, the state's anti-pollution law has spurred a clean energy market that has grown at ten times the average rate of other California industries. The outcome also demonstrates voters' repudiation of out-of-state oil companies, who spent almost $50 million on the campaign in order to secure their own profits. Aside from being a step forward to a green economy, rejection of Proposition 23 reflects the public's support for a comprehensive climate and energy plan. As a federal, comprehensive clean energy bill is unlikely to be realized any time soon, state legislators should learn from the California example and recognize that anti-pollution law will generate jobs and earn the support of their constituents.
If environmentalists and green businesses succeeded at the polls with Proposition 23, they cannot sing victory with the passage of Proposition 26, a measure that tightens how the state constitution defines taxes and regulatory fees. Dubbed the "evil twin" of Proposition 23, Proposition 26 was also funded by large oil-producing companies, who poured millions of dollars during the last two weeks of the campaign. This almost obscure initiative requires that two-thirds of state and local officials, rather than a simple majority, approve any increase on industry fees. As many clean energy programs depend on fees approved by state and local officials, environmentalists fear that Prop. 26 could undercut the very climate change initiative voters protected at the polls. However, a top California official said that Proposition 26 only applies to laws enacted after January 1 2010, and therefore will not affect AB 32, the landmark anti-climate change law signed in 2006. However, questions now abound about the implications for future conservation efforts in the Golden State. The implementation of Proposition 23 will make the creation of clean energy programs confusing, as investors will not be clear about how many and which types of fees their businesses will have to pay. One thing is for sure: the new law is likely to create uncertainty in the clean technology sector, thereby negatively impacting investment and job creation.
Another Win for Reproductive Rights: Colorado's Amendment 62
Progressives scored a victory in Colorado, where a pro-life initiative was defeated by a 3-to-1 margin. Amendment 62 sought to give constitutional rights to individuals "at the beginning of biological development." The vote marks the second time that Colorado voters rejected such attempt; in 2008 they rejected the "personhood" initiative by a margin of 73 percent to 27 percent. Hopefully, "personhood" advocates will now get the message that the people are ready to stand for their reproductive freedom and strongly support the right to choice upheld by the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade.
Workers' Rights a Defining Issue in 2011, Going Forward
As we reported last week, anti-worker ballot initiatives went before voters in five states (Arizona, Georgia, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Utah). All five passed by large margins, ranging from 60-40 to 80-20. However, the success of those measures should not be taken as a barometer of public support for workers' rights: all five utilized misleading or ambiguous language to undermine important but relatively obscure rights and protections.
Notably, exit-polls indicate a strong concern for basic economic security and labor standards among voters. Surveys by the Associated Press found that 62% of voters named the economy as their top concern - far more than any other issue (health care was second at 18%) - with a solid majority of those people voting Republican. Further analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund shows that voters who were "very worried" about the economy (50% of voters), who described the state of the economy as "poor" (37% of voters), and those whose financial situation is worse than in 2008 (41% of voters) all voted strongly Republican (70%, 71%, and 63%, respectively). And although more voters blamed the economy on Wall Street (35%) than any single political leader (29% Pres. George W. Bush, 23% Pres. Obama), those individuals preferred the GOP by a significant margin (56-42%).
Tuesday's results show clear indications that progressives have much to gain by embracing peoples' concerns about jobs and economic security. For instance, in Connecticut, presumptive gubernatorial winner Dan Malloy distinguished himself from his opponents in both the primary and general election through his concern for working-class issues and support for economic security issues like job creation and paid sick days.
"To be clear, making Connecticut more business friendly does not mean making it less worker friendly. As with so many other arguments I've heard over the years, I reject this false choice. We can and should do both, simultaneously. That's one of the reasons I support a smart mandatory paid sick days policy; studies have shown that implemented in the right fashion, this produces a healthier, more efficient, more effective workforce, and actually saves money."
Should he be declared the official winner, Malloy will have reversed a 24-year state trend of electing Republican governors in a year that heavily favored the GOP. While the new political composition of many legislatures will make it harder to enact pro-worker legislation in the next session, advocating strongly for jobs and economic security is essential to changing the political environment in the coming years.
Growing the Progressive Movement in the States is More Important than Ever
The different messages sent by voters on Tuesday were rooted in unprecedented frustration with an economy that they see as still broken and a political system from Congress down to the states that has so far not proven itself up to the task of fixing it. With the forecast for Washington, D.C. now predicting even more gridlock, states will increasingly remain the places where lawmakers can most effectively work to impact the daily lives of their constituents. In this new political environment, the work of state legislators to join with colleagues and advocates in building a national progressive movement - one capable of positively influencing both the national debate and the everyday lives of the families they represent - will be more important than ever.